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Costa Mesa officials in legal battle over $32-million high school performing arts complex

Digital rendering of a performing arts complex on a high school campus next to a street
A rendering of a proposed performing arts complex at Estancia High School in Costa Mesa. City officials are seeking to overturn approvals for the project, claiming not enough environmental review was done.
(Newport-Mesa Unified School District)

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s plan to construct a $32-million performing arts complex at Estancia High School is being challenged by the city of Costa Mesa in a lawsuit that alleges the project has not undergone adequate environmental review.

In a petition for writ of mandate filed in Orange County Superior Court this year, Costa Mesa City Atty. Kimberly Barlow said Newport-Mesa trustees approved the project in October 2019 and submitted plans to the state architect in November without holding adequate and timely public hearings.

The city “and the public will suffer irreparable harm by respondents’ failure to take the required steps to protect the environment and follow mandatory environmental review in compliance with the law,” the document states.

Attorneys for the school district objected to the petition in a March 8 notice of demurrer that claimed city officials failed to file their petition within a stipulated 180-day deadline from the date of project approval. A hearing on that demurrer is scheduled for May 7, ahead of a June 11 case management conference.

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The dispute centers on the school district’s plan to build a 46,000-square-foot complex with a 350-seat theater and lobby, a black-box theater and new concession, storage and backstage areas on the Estancia High campus in Costa Mesa.

Outdoor work would include creation of a courtyard plaza, reconfiguration of a bus area and perimeter fencing. The existing theater would remain intact and be repurposed as a lecture hall, according to district spokeswoman Annette Franco, who added that the district would not comment on existing litigation.

Construction would also necessitate demolition of a nearly 1-acre senior lawn that contains several mature sycamore trees and provides respite for students at the windowless high school.

Saying the project would not increase the school’s student capacity or require a change in facility use, the district’s board of trustees adopted a resolution Dec. 9 finding the Estancia project exempt from California Environmental Quality Act review.

The city’s petition suggests school board members were wrong to claim the theater project exempt from CEQA review because the performing arts complex and its construction could significantly affect aesthetics, open space, air quality, traffic and circulation.

“A massive theater complex taking up almost 2 acres, costing $32 million, taking two years to construct and destroying the much-loved senior lawn and two dozen iconic sycamore trees can hardly be categorized as a ‘minor addition’ to existing school facilities,” the document states.

It also claims board members rubber-stamped the approval process without giving the public enough opportunity to review and comment on the project, although a project review committee made up of district officials and school site employees initially weighed in on some aspects of the proposal and its location on campus.

Barlow maintained in the document that comments and questions posed at a Dec. 3 community meeting, held weeks after plans were sent to the state architect, went unanswered.

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City employee “Minoo Ashabi specifically questioned the basis for any CEQA exemption for the project but received no response from district representatives,” the document states. “Both written and verbal comments were made at the community meeting addressing the potential significant impact of the project.”

Costa Mesa officials seek to vacate and set aside all project approvals and request Newport-Mesa Unified engage in a full CEQA review process and conduct “all necessary environmental review as required by law,” including the drafting of an environmental impact report.

A favorable ruling by the court could push back the project by months, potentially more than a year. Construction is scheduled to begin this fall in advance of a 2023 opening.

In their objection filed in March, school district attorneys addressed what they called a “fundamental flaw” in the city’s complaint.

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“The petition was filed more than nine months too late,” they wrote. “Because the statute of limitations bars the city’s action, the entire complaint, including all causes of action, [is] time-barred.”

An Orange County Superior Court judge could rule to sustain or amend Newport-Mesa’s demurrer at the May 7 hearing.

Cardine writes for Times Community News.


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