Newport-Mesa seeks waiver from having to lease, sell unused land to highest bidder

An 11.36-acre parcel of land has been owned by Newport-Mesa Unified School District for decades but never used.
An 11.36-acre parcel of land near the ecologically rich Randall Preserve has been owned by Newport-Mesa Unified School District for decades but never used.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Those who sell property are usually looking for the highest possible offer, but Newport-Mesa Unified School District officials considering what to do with 11.36 acres of costally zoned land in Newport Beach are taking a different course.

Trustees on Tuesday approved seeking a waiver from the state that would exempt them from portions of California Education Code that require public school districts to accept the highest bid when leasing or selling a piece of surplus property.

The move comes after a NMUSD-convened advisory group, composed of a cross-section of stakeholder representatives, held a series of public hearings beginning in November to prioritize potential uses for the site.


Located at the western terminus of Costa Mesa’s 16th Street, the parcel is adjacent to the 384-acre former Banning Ranch oil field (renamed Randall Preserve), recently acquired through a $97-million conservation effort by the nonprofit Coastal Corridor Alliance.

Conservationists and community members urged members of the Banning Ranch Surplus Land Committee to advise that Newport-Mesa Unified officials retain the property as open space, while others favored creating an outdoor classroom where students could benefit from the proximity of Randall Preserve.

The deal to purchase the 384-acre property was struck last May. Conservationists rallied to raise the funds needed to purchase the land and got the last bit they needed Thursday.

May 26, 2022

Wendy Leece, a former NMUSD trustee who served from 1993 to 2002, spoke on behalf of both options during Tuesday’s board meeting.

“I challenge you to take this process seriously. Because it’s an opportunity,” she told board members. “It isn’t just 11 acres of dirt — there are owls out there, the burrowing owls, and there are rules regarding the habitat that surround the burrowing owl. I encourage you to think outside the box and think of an outdoor classroom on the westside.”

Despite the predominance of that viewpoint, members of the advisory committee identified a ground lease with a state waiver as the best possible use for the site, followed by keeping it as undeveloped open space and then selling off the land.

Committee chair Adam Ereth — who owns a Costa Mesa-based environmental consulting business and chairs that city’s planning commission — explained the group’s preference was to give the school district the widest spectrum of options.

“There are some very strong feelings around wanting to retain this as open space. And although that may be true, and I think a lot of people do believe in that, the fact does remain that there are other options that you can pursue,” Ereth said Tuesday. “We, collectively on this board, wanted to leave that to you to decide, not just us.”

A surplus land committee will seek public input in a Feb. 5 meeting at the school district’s headquarters in Costa Mesa.

Jan. 27, 2024

District legal consultant Stephen McLoughlin assured trustees seeking a waiver from the state would not obligate NMUSD to take any particular course of action but would, instead, allow officials to issue requests for proposals meeting any parameters they wanted to establish.

“When you do these RFPs, you get people from all over the world who will come to your property and come up with ideas that, frankly, we hadn’t thought about,” he said. “It’s a good first step — it doesn’t commit us to anything.”

Newport-Mesa Assistant Supt. Jeff Trader said Wednesday it will ultimately be up to board members to decide whether they want to pursue a nature-oriented use for the property or consider other alternatives, including workforce housing or swapping the parcel for another, more buildable site with fewer environmental constraints.

“I think the board would make a determination of what the most beneficial use is, and that may not be the highest bid,” he said. “They simply want the flexibility to get the best value.”

In its application to the state Board of Education, the district must include information indicating whether each of its bargaining units officially opposes, supports or is neutral to the idea of a waiver, something Trader anticipated would be completed by April 16.

NMUSD is currently looking at going before the board sometime in July, he added.