Newport-Mesa Unified loses bid to have court toss city’s suit against $32M Estancia theater plan

Estancia High School in Costa Mesa
Newport-Mesa Unified School District proposes to build a $32-million performing arts complex at Estancia High School by 2023. But a city lawsuit claiming adequate environmental analysis was not done could halt plans.
(File Photo)

A lawsuit filed by the city of Costa Mesa — claiming a $32-million theater planned for Estancia High School did not undergo proper environmental review — will move forward, despite attempts by Newport-Mesa Unified officials to have the case thrown out.

In a Jan. 15 legal complaint, Costa Mesa City Atty. Kimberly Hall Barlow said school board members supported building a 46,000-square-foot performing arts complex with a 350-seat theater, black box theater and lobby at the Costa Mesa campus in October 2019.

More than one year later, with plans already submitted to the State Architect’s office, trustees determined in a Dec. 9, 2020 meeting the two-year construction project would be exempt from review under the California Environmental Quality Act — a move the city has challenged.

A rendering shows a new theater complex being planned for Estancia High School in Costa Mesa.
(Courtesy of Newport-Mesa Unified School District)

“[The] district and board prejudicially abused their discretion in approving the project without the preparation of any environmental analysis and/or by committing the district to a definite course of action in regard to the project long before adopting the [notice of exemption],” Hall Barlow wrote in the city’s complaint.

City officials requested the school district engage in a full environmental review process for the project, which they maintain would have significant impacts to students and residents through increased traffic and parking demands, the removal of dozens of mature sycamore trees and a senior lawn and installation of perimeter fencing that would block community access to school grounds.

Newport-Mesa Unified School District attorneys claimed in a March 8 notice of demurrer Costa Mesa officials missed a 180-day window for filing CEQA complaints that starts once a project has been approved. Maintaining that even Hall Barlow had written in the city’s petition the project was approved in 2019, they sought to have the lawsuit dismissed.

“This prayer for relief is ultimately moot, because the city is barred by the statute of limitations from challenging the underlying project approval,” attorneys wrote.

Estancia High School's senior lawn, seen in November 2020, would be removed to make way for a new performing arts complex.
Estancia’s senior lawn, seen in November 2020, would be removed to accommodate a new performing arts complex. That’s one impact Costa Mesa city officials say should be analyzed by the school district.
(File Photo)

But an Orange County Superior Court Judge Randall J. Sherman, in a ruling delivered Friday, disagreed.

The point of contention was whether school board members’ actions in October 2019 constituted a commitment to a definite course of action. Sherman said the city never specifically equated the two.

“This distinction is critical,” the judge clarified. “[The] petitioner alleges no formal or official ‘decision,’ which the regulation requires to trigger the statute of limitations.”

Sherman gave Newport-Mesa’s attorneys 10 days to respond to the city’s petition for writ of mandate.

NMUSD spokeswoman Annette Franco on Monday said she was unable to comment on any existing litigation. It’s unclear whether the city’s legal challenge will prolong the work at Estancia, scheduled to begin this fall and wrap in 2023.

Hall Barlow said in an interview Tuesday the city has not yet filed an injunction to legally stop Newport-Mesa from moving forward with its plans for the performing arts complex.

“What we’d really like to see them do, honestly…is simply do the correct environmental review so that the issues raised in our petition can be addressed,” she said. “We’re not trying to kill the project. We just want it done right.”

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