Developer responds to my Museum House columns

I've kept a close eye on the drama in Newport Beach regarding the controversial Museum House project.

On Feb. 3, I wrote about how last July Museum House developer Bill Witte, chairman and chief executive of Related California, spoke at a real estate conference where he shared some sound advice with his peers about how to maneuver projects that communities opposed.

I questioned how Witte could hand out such reasonable advice yet wind up in the middle of one of the ugliest battles over a development project in Newport history. I wanted to ask Witte about this and more at that time, but he was traveling.

This week I heard from David A. Herbst, managing partner of Vectis Strategies, a public relations firm representing Related.

Herbst claimed I "advocate against development" and that my column "was predicated around the assertion that Bill Witte did not follow his own advice of engaging in community discussions when bringing Museum House through the entitlement process."

Herbst also said I was "factually incorrect," and that Witte and his team held more than 100 meetings with various community groups, local leaders and stakeholders, receiving feedback "before and during the entitlement process."

First, let me say, in my 10 years as an opinion columnist, many development projects have moved forward in Costa Mesa and Newport that have never made it into my columns. That's because there wasn't anything objectionable or terribly controversial about them.

And, quite frankly, Museum House wouldn't have made my columns either, if not for Line in the Sand's referendum campaign to put the project before voters, the ugly campaign trying to stop the initiative, the Irvine Co.'s objection and lawsuit (later dropped) and other controversies.

The stage was set for high drama, and that's exactly what played out. And that's what I wrote about.

I've never voiced an opinion about the project itself, only on the controversy that transpired.

And I'm not alone in the feeling that very public, and often ugly, debate over the project mattered here.

My husband, Stan, initially a Museum House supporter, changed his mind about the project after being confronted and told not to sign a petition to put the project on the ballot by two young, aggressive men in front of the Westcliff Plaza CVS on Irvine Avenue. This happened after he stopped at a Line in the Sand petition table to chat with the ladies there.

Former Newport Councilman Keith Curry, who originally voted for the project and then later signed the referendum petition, tells me he never thought this was "a bad project, but they handled their politics all wrong with the community, the worst I've ever seen."

Based on his years as a councilman, Curry says he sees development as a "delicate dance" with the community and feels it's the responsibility of the developer to manage that.

"It was managed very poorly," he said.

Also, the Feb 3. column never stated Related didn't meet with the community, as the letter to me implied. (Related most certainly did meet with the community). However, the fact remains that this whole project got totally out of hand.

Herbst said that Witte "even met privately with SPON's leadership numerous times. This included meetings with Jean Watt, Susan Skinner, Nancy Skinner and Tim Stoaks. Unfortunately, SPON was unwilling to offer any ideas except blanket opposition to Museum House."

Stoaks is a spokesman for Line in the Sand and — full disclosure — is also my neighbor and friend. He confirmed Witte did meet with his group. Line in the Sand has objected to the height of the project and argued that it didn't follow the voter-approved general plan.

"It was obvious to us that they wanted to build their project, as is, and were not open to compromise," Stoaks said.

Looking back at the events that bring us to today, it seems obvious Related California and Line in the Sand were never going to see eye to eye here.

I believe there were judgment calls made as strategies were being developed on both sides of this battle, that I imagine, in hindsight, some would come to regret.

BARBARA VENEZIA lives in Newport Beach. She can be reached at bvontv1@gmail.com.

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