Referendum drive starts as Museum House fight heats up

Allegations of fake petitions. Door hangers urging residents to avoid petitions.

Television ads. "Rogues." A political complaint. A political complaint dismissed.

The battle over Museum House — a 25-story, 100-unit luxury condominium tower approved last week by the Newport Beach City Council — is in full force, creating a landscape in which various sides are trying to outdo the others.

On one end is Line in the Sand, the political arm of Still Protecting Our Newport, which announced Monday that it has officially begun the process of challenging the council's approval of Museum House through a petition drive seeking a referendum.

The condos would replace the Orange County Museum of Art at 850 San Clemente Drive in Newport Center. The museum plans to move to Costa Mesa.

Line in the Sand needs 5,800 verified signatures of local voters within 30 days to potentially bring the project to a public vote. The group has expressed worries about the development's possible effects on traffic and the prospect of more high-rise residences in Newport Beach.

"We believe residents will step up to the plate because they know the only way Newport Beach will retain its charm and character is if we make our voices heard," the group said in a statement.

On the opposite end is OCMA Urban Housing LLC, an affiliate of Museum House developer Related California, which argues the project will fit nicely in Newport Center and have no significant effects on traffic.

Over the weekend, OCMA Urban Housing distributed door hangers urging Newport residents not to sign petitions circulated by Line in the Sand or another group, Citizens Against High Rise Urban Towers, a Santa Ana-based nonprofit.

The latter alleged last week that the council voted to approve Museum House without receiving requisite written confirmation from the Federal Aviation Administration that the condo tower and aircraft using a nearby Police Department helipad would not pose a threat to each other.

The city says it received adequate confirmation.

The door hangers alleged that Citizens Against High Rise Urban Towers is funded by "dark money" — funds given to nonprofits that don't have to disclose the source of the funding.

The hangers also referenced a complaint filed against the group in November with the California Fair Political Practices Commission.

Newport Beach activist Bob McCaffrey alleged the nonprofit evaded campaign disclosure requirements when it produced Facebook ads, TV segments and mailers opposing Museum House. Related California has repeatedly said the messages are false and misleading.

On Nov. 30, an FPPC representative wrote to McCaffrey that the commission dismissed the matter because Citizens Against High Rise Urban Towers hadn't violated the law.

Mark Rosen, an attorney with the group, said Monday that its online petition is unofficial and would have no legal effect and, as a nonprofit, the group can advocate to the public.

In recent days, OCMA Urban Housing launched two websites, SaveTheMuseum.com and FakePetition.com.

The former accuses Rosen of circulating a fake online petition that could hurt the Orange County Museum of Art's efforts to offer art education to children and senior citizens. It also calls the petitions by Rosen's group and Line in the Sand a "cynical attempt to confuse voters."

On Monday, the website contained pictures of activists opposing Museum House in a section dubbed the "rogues gallery." On Tuesday, the gallery was gone.

An early headline above the section read, "Meet those who seek to ruin the Orange Country [sic] Museum of Art."

The headline was later changed to "Why do they want to hurt the museum and our kids?"

FakePetition.com contains a form and a phone number to report petitioners gathering signatures in Newport Beach.

Sean Matsler of Newport Beach, an attorney representing Museum House, said the website is about ensuring the petition process is legal. "There is no harassment" intended with it, he said.

"The Newport Beach City Council and the California elections code both want to ensure that Newport Beach residents see the two years' worth of work, thousands of pages of technical studies and the extensive care that went into the city's approval of this project," Matsler said in a statement. "It is imperative that all petition signers have access to the full record before signing anything.

"Due to the numerous reports of non-legitimate petitions that we have received from residents, we want to make sure that the process is being strictly adhered to, just as we strictly adhered to the city's discretionary approval process. Newport Beach voters deserve nothing less."

On Friday, a man outside the Ralphs supermarket at Newport's Westcliff shopping center was gathering signatures against Museum House. His materials did not contain requisite legal documents.

Susan Skinner, who works with Still Protecting Our Newport, and Rosen told the Daily Pilot on Friday that the man wasn't with their groups.

When approached by a Pilot reporter, the man said he couldn't comment and soon drove away.

Newport Beach police spokeswoman Jennifer Manzella said Monday that officers responded to a report about the man and gathered information.

"We're looking into the circumstances of the incident further," she said in an email.

Some people speculated that the man's petition was fake and was intended to distract residents from signing legitimate petitions.

"It is not unknown for a developer, with millions at stake, to circulate a phony petition to confuse the voters and then use the confusion to tell voters not to sign any petition," Rosen said in an email.

In response, Matsler said Related California had no involvement in the petition at Westcliff or any other petition.

"When will Rosen fully disclose who is funding his efforts?" Matsler said. "We call on Mr. Rosen, yet again, to come out of the shadows and disclose the money behind his campaign."

Rosen told the Daily Pilot last week that the nonprofit is funded "primarily" by Newport Beach residents who have signed other petitions against Museum House. He said he is unaware of the group's other financial backers.

Copyright © 2017, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°