Los Angeles Times

Venezia: Watt wakes up Newport to land-use amendment

At 87, longtime Newport resident, 2013 citizen of the year, councilwoman, community activist and Save Our Newport (SPON) co-founder Jean Watt is fired up.

Watt has championed many causes, the Greenlight development movement and John Wayne Airport restrictions among them.

Now she's on a mission to educate residents and rally them against the city's efforts to update the Land Use Element Amendment to the general plan. She thinks it's a bad idea.

In April, I wrote about how SPON, formed in 1974, was changing its name to Still Protecting Our Newport and repurposing itself because of this land-use issue.


Watt and SPON are urging the City Council not to approve the amendment when it comes up for a vote July 8.

If the council approves it, then the measure will appear on the November ballot.

But because the issue is so complex, Watt worries that voters may not take the time to fully understand it and the effect it would have on their lives.

She argues traffic would increase terribly.

When we spoke, Watt had my head spinning as she went into great detail about the many facets and technicalities of what the city's proposing.

"You're right, this is terribly confusing. It's even mind boggling for me," she joked.

Make no mistake — Watt has painstakingly dissected this issue.

She was amazingly detailed explaining the flaws in it and in the city's process.

When a city does an environmental impact report (EIR) it must balance all the elements. And the one Newport did 2006 didn't do that, said Watt.

But the city did a supplemental EIR, which is only supposed to be used if a change in the plan is minor.

"This isn't minor," Watt complained. "This is very major, but they are trying to justify doing it as a supplemental."

She went on to say the 2006 update was meant to last until 2025, with a promise of a reduction in traffic.

"Now along comes this ... plan that flies in the face of that promise and adds traffic," Watt said.

So how do Watt and SPON plan on waking up residents to the implications of this amendment?

In addition to letters to the editor and ads in local newspapers, SPON has used its website as a call to action.

Not only can folks sign a petition — 1,000 have so far — but SPON is looking for volunteers for an old-school style campaign.

Watt remembers the '70s and '80s, when SPON was a clearinghouse for residents throughout the city.

"If one neighborhood was fighting a battle, we would help them," she says.

Volunteers with strong ties in neighborhoods would knock on doors and make phone calls to rally their communities in grass-roots efforts.

These days, social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, has taken the place of those more personal efforts.

Even though SPON has those technologies in play, Watt hopes to revitalize the old way of advocating as she embarks on this latest battle.

Will SPON challenge the city legally on this amendment?

Watt tells me a lawsuit is a "definite possibility."

I asked her how SPON plans on participating this election season since the organization has 501(c)(3) status, a tax code designation granted to nonprofits.

She says a political action committee will be created to finance mailers and candidates who agree with the group's stand.

But I think Watt needs to wake up Newport council candidates as well.

Though she's personally endorsed Diane Dixon and Mike Toerge, neither mentions the land-use amendment on their campaign websites.

I also visited the sites of candidates Scott Peotter, Michael Glen and Tim Brown. Nothing there either.

And in reading articles of candidates who don't yet have sites, such as Marshall Duffy, Kevin Muldoon and Roy Englebrecht, none mentioned the issue in interviews.

What's up with that?

According to Watt, this is one of the most important issues facing residents in decades, yet no council candidate has it on his or her radar?

Or are the candidates all purposely avoiding the issue for fear of offending businesses ponying up campaign contributions?

The Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce supports the city's efforts here, and it seems former Mayor Don Webb is its mouthpiece.

Webb sent out a letter sponsored by the chamber in support of the amendment urging residents to attend chamber-sponsored informational meetings.

But I'm not sure residents who go will get the whole picture. After all, the chamber has a vested interest in growing business, not so much a concern with residential quality-of-life issues.

Watt on the other hand, is all about those.

BARBARA VENEZIA, whose column appears Fridays, lives in Newport Beach. She can be reached at bvontv1@gmail.com.

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