When Newport Beach City Council candidates gathered for their first debate on Thursday morning at the Central Library, they could all agree on at least one thing: Newport Beach is a great place to live.
But as the forum focused on hot-button issues such as parking, traffic and development, they began to divide over whether the current council has handled issues with fiscal responsibility, attention to resident input and reasoned deliberation.
The free public event was sponsored by the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce as part of its monthly Wake Up! Newport series.
Local dignitaries settled into the audience to hear how the next council might decide to change things — if at all. The onlookers included former Mayor Don Webb, several harbor commissioners and the council members whose seats are not up for election this year: Keith Curry, Tony Petros and Ed Selich.
Moderator Lucy Dunn, president and chief executive of the Orange County Business Council, greeted the eight candidates by telling them, "You are looking very spry this morning."
The hopefuls gave introductory statements, then answered rapid-fire questions from Dunn by raising "yes" or "no" signs in response.
Then they began to dig a little deeper into issues, with one-minute responses to a series of other questions.
PARKING, TRAFFIC AND DEVELOPMENT
When it comes to parking strategies on the Balboa Peninsula, the city should be serving residents rather than focusing on making the area a destination for outsiders, according to Marshall "Duffy" Duffield, a District 3 candidate.
"The issue on the peninsula will never be solved in terms of parking," Duffield said. "There simply isn't enough parking and never will be."
Roy Englebrecht (District 4) expressed a similar view, saying, "This is a problem that has never gone away."
Perhaps there could be a parking structure at the top of the peninsula, suggested Kevin Muldoon (District 4). Maybe more permit parking, Scott Peotter (District 6) offered. Or businesses could try to share spaces better, said Michael Toerge (District 6).
Mayor Rush Hill (District 3) said parking requirements sometimes can only be met by certain types of businesses, such as banks.
The group was in general agreement that the market should dictate which businesses should stay, rather than imposing more stringent zoning.
"If we want the businesses to thrive in Newport Beach, which we do, we have to patron those businesses," Muldoon said.
Hill said government needs to impose parameters to keep out unwanted businesses such as massage parlors and explicit video stores.
Only Englebrecht staunchly opposed an amendment to the land-use element of the General Plan that will be on the city ballot in November. It proposes increasing development potential in the Newport Center and airport areas but decreased development capacity in other parts of the city, like Newport Coast.
Englebrecht lamented that condominiums block his view of the ocean when he drives, and he called for "common-sense protection for our views, or we just become another city."
DOCKS, DROUGHT AND SEA LEVEL
An argument began over whether the city should have raised the fees for residential and commercial tidelands permit holders, commonly referred to as the "dock tax."
"It's not a tax," Hill said. "It's a licensing fee."
He added that the fee amount had been unchanged for 21 years and needed to be amended.
His opponent, Duffield, classified it as "the most complicated and expensive method" for the city to get an "unequitable" amount of money.
"The city essentially took away a property right that existed for the homeowners," Muldoon agreed, arguing that the change had negatively affected property values.
Other questions touched on two other water-related issues: the drought and rising sea levels.
"I support whatever we can do to strengthen water conservation," said Diane Dixon (District 1). "We all have to do our part."
Peotter suggested calling for more water storage statewide. Toerge suggested tiered water rates.
As for how to deal with a rise in sea levels, Duffield proposed a floating gate at the harbor entrance. Tim Brown (District 4) posed a strategy of building up the Balboa Island sea wall incrementally. "We have a little bit of time," he said.