Petition challenging Newport's Museum House condo tower gathers 13,730 signatures, city says

Organizers of a campaign challenging a city-approved luxury condominium tower in Newport Beach delivered thousands of petition signatures to the city clerk's office Wednesday, starting a process that could result in a public vote on the 25-story project.

Line in the Sand, the political arm of local activist group Still Protecting Our Newport, spent about two weeks and at least $40,000 to drum up support to fight the 100-unit Museum House development, which is slated to replace the Orange County Museum of Art at 850 San Clemente Drive in Newport Center. The museum plans to move to Costa Mesa.

By the group's count, it gathered 13,837 signatures — well above the original 8,000 goal and the roughly 5,800 signatures of local voters needed to qualify for a referendum. The signatures were delivered about a week before the Dec. 29 deadline.

Line in the Sand gave the city about 360 petition packets, each of them 2 1/2 inches thick and containing about 1,000 pages. Each weighed 10 pounds and cost $90 to produce.

The group rented a truck to haul a majority of the packets, which were stuffed in 65 cardboard boxes weighing nearly 2 tons. At City Hall, a team that included City Manager Dave Kiff delivered the boxes and loose packets to the second-floor city clerk's office for counting.

After several hours, the clerk counted 13,730 signatures — 107 less than Line in the Sand's figure.

They will be sent Thursday to the Orange County registrar of voters office for verification. If enough are verified within 30 working days from Wednesday, the matter will return to the City Council, which could put the development up for a citywide vote in a special election or at the next general election in 2018. The council also could rescind its Nov. 29 approval of Museum House.

The packets were thick because of a motion initiated last month by then-Councilman Ed Selich that, in effect, attached thousands of pages of background documents to the petitions.

In a statement Wednesday, Line in the Sand said: "It is the right of Newport Beach voters to call for a public vote to decide a single political question. Line in the Sand is hopeful that this referendum will succeed in bringing voters and city leaders together for an open conversation about the future character of our town.

"By talking and listening to each other, the hope is that a true consensus will develop for future planning purposes."

Gino Canori, executive vice president of development for Museum House applicant Related California, said in a statement Wednesday that the company continues to "stand by the facts" regarding Museum House, including its contention that the project complies with Greenlight, a growth-control measure approved by city voters in 2000. He also touted possible public benefits from Museum House's tax revenue, including funding West Coast Highway landscaping, a new junior lifeguard headquarters and other projects.

"If the referendum does qualify, it will be thanks to the major campaign, funded by secret money, that has worked to torpedo Museum House with citywide mailers, TV ads and other activities," Canori added. "Hopefully, those behind the secret money will come out of the shadows so they can be identified for the benefit of all citizens that might possibly vote on this issue."

Related has accused Museum House opponent Citizens Against High Rise Urban Towers, a Santa Ana-based nonprofit whose backers have not been made public, of being a "dark money" group.

On Tuesday, Related California said a law firm it asked to examine Line in the Sand's petition concluded that the document doesn't comply with state elections code, partially because of its small font, which Related called "illegible."

Line in the Sand organizers have said that in order to comply with state law and attach all the necessary documents to the petition, they reformatted the documents to make them fit on about 1,000 pages instead of having 4,000 or 5,000 pages.

The signature-gathering process was marked by allegations against all sides, leading many observers to say they had never seen a campaign get so aggressive in otherwise civil Newport Beach.

Line in the Sand and Related California have accused each other of spreading misinformation, and on Wednesday, Line in the Sand issued fresh criticism of Related and its affiliate OCMA Urban Housing LLC, saying their supporters used "deterrents like physical and verbal harassment, mailings, phone calls and other tactics."

Related and OCMA Urban Housing hired a firm to try to persuade people to either rescind their petition signatures or not sign the petitions at all. Some of the firm's workers were stationed near Line in the Sand's tables, which were staffed by a mix of volunteers and paid signature gatherers.

An Irvine Co. lawsuit against Related said some of its supporters trespassed on Irvine Co. properties this month by conducting Museum House-related activities there without the Irvine Co.'s permission.

bradley.zint@latimes.com

Twitter: @BradleyZint

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