Newport Beach rejects local emergency over ongoing winter storms

The hillside behind a home at 1930 Galaxy Drive in Newport Beach were covered Sunday in anticipation of further rain damage.
The hillside behind a home at 1930 Galaxy Drive in Newport Beach was covered in March in anticipation of further rain damage. The house was demolished two weeks after a landslide occurred.
(Susan Hoffman)

The Newport Beach City Council rejected an effort to declare a local state of emergency in the city this week against staff recommendations, with council members saying they felt findings to do so were insufficient.

The item was listed on the meeting’s consent calendar, but Mayor Pro Tem Will O’Neill pulled it, saying he wanted to focus on the law and the findings necessary for the city to reasonably make a declaration.

As defined by the state, a jurisdiction is able to declare a local state of emergency if it feels “conditions of disaster or of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property within the territorial limits of a county, city and county, or city” exist and if they are beyond the control of existing internal staff and require the combined efforts of other “political subfactions.”

A local state of emergency allows jurisdictions to more directly access state and federal financial assistance.

“There’s no question that the storms that we’ve been dealing with have been at minimum, annoying, at maximum, have caused damage. Sometimes, in particular properties, substantial damage. There’s no question about that, but in terms of whether we can make a finding of ‘extreme peril,’ I really can’t make that finding,” O’Neill said. “And even if we could conclude that it’s extreme peril, the question that I’ve got to ask is can we really say that our 700-plus employees can’t handle what we’re facing? ... they can’t handle the storms that we’ve had or ... that are coming?”

O’Neill said if he sat on the council of cities in other parts of the state more impacted by the storms he’d likely have made the findings, but he didn’t feel Newport Beach met those standards.

“I also don’t think that if we walked out of this meeting having declared a state of emergency [that] we would be looking around thinking we’re in extreme peril. We certainly wouldn’t be acting like it, and so it’s important that we’re taking this very seriously when you’re trying to declare a state of emergency,” O’Neill said.

Councilman Brad Avery agreed with the sentiments and was one of the five votes that chose to reject the proposal by city staff. Councilman Erik Weigand and Councilwoman Robyn Grant cast the opposing votes, in favor of declaring a local emergency as city staff recommended.

City Manager Grace Leung said the item was brought up in part by the county’s decision to declare a local emergency earlier this month in response to the storms after seeing damage in Seal Beach and Laguna Beach. The backyard of a Dover Shores home also collapsed into upper Newport Bay and was later demolished. A landslide was also reported in San Clemente in early March.

Over 13.37 inches of rain have been reported in Newport Beach to date since December, with the average for the period typically around 9.43 inches.

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