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Costa Mesa city, school officials in legal battle over $32M Estancia High School theater project

A rendering of a proposed performing arts complex at Estancia High School in Costa Mesa that could be completed by 2023.
A rendering of a proposed performing arts complex at Estancia High School in Costa Mesa that could be completed by 2023. City officials seek to overturn approvals for the project, claiming not enough environmental review was done.
(Courtesy of Newport-Mesa Unified School District)

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 in January, Costa Mesa City Atty. Kimberly Barlow stated Newport-Mesa trustees approved the project in Oct. 2019 and submitted plans to the State Architect last 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.

A rendering shows the interior of a performing arts complex being planned for Estancia High School in Costa Mesa.
A rendering shows the interior of a performing arts complex being planned for Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s Estancia High School in Costa Mesa.
(Courtesy of Newport-Mesa Unified School District)

The dispute centers on NMUSD’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 said Tuesday 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.

A nearly 1-acre senior lawn with mature sycamores at Estancia High School in Costa Mesa.
A nearly 1-acre senior lawn with mature sycamores at Estancia High School in Costa Mesa would be torn out to make room for a performing arts complex that could be completed by 2023.
(File Photo)

Claiming the project would not increase the school’s student capacity or require a change in facility use, NMUSD’s board of trustees adopted a resolution in a Dec. 9, 2020 meeting finding the Estancia project exempt from environmental reviews called for under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The city’s petition suggests school board members were wrong to claim the Estancia theater project exempt from CEQA review, as the performing arts complex and its construction could significantly impact 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 stated.

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 comprising 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, 2020 community meeting, held weeks after plans were sent to the State Architect, went unanswered.

“[City employee] Minoo Ashabi specifically questioned the basis for any CEQA exemption for the project but received no response from district representatives,” it stated. “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 potentially push back the project, on which construction is slated to begin this fall in advance of a 2023 opening, by months or even more than a year.

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

“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.

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