Newport to expand general plan steering committee after critics object to some members

The appointment of former Newport Beach Mayor Ed Selich, pictured in 2016, to the city’s general plan steering committee drew objections Tuesday from local activist Susan Skinner.
(File Photo)

Newport Beach will expand a citizen oversight committee for the city’s general plan update after criticism that the group didn’t reflect local sentiments about development.

The City Council on Tuesday agreed to bump the general plan steering committee from five members to seven and reopen the application process within two weeks to fill the additional spots.

The council also agreed to launch the process with the five members already recommended by a panel of council members, despite critics’ objections to some of them. That group includes two former mayors, a former planning commissioner, the president of the city’s largest neighborhood residents association and a library trustee.

Thirty-nine people applied to be on the steering committee, which is tasked with giving input on a request for proposals from consultants that would prepare the updated general plan, the city’s long-term planning and development guideline.

The committee will disband after the council selects a consultant and will not directly guide the plan’s content. That task will fall to another committee that will be appointed later this year and is expected to have at least 25 members.

Mayor Diane Dixon said the steering committee’s work is apolitical and process-driven.

“One’s prior involvement in any local political issue is not germane to this process,” she said. “There is no exclusion of a profession or area of expertise of point of view including land use. This is an inclusive group of community volunteers.”

The steering committee will include former Mayors Nancy Gardner and Ed Selich; former planning commissioner and current Finance Commissioner Larry Tucker; Debbie Stevens, president of the Corona del Mar Residents Assn.; and Paul Watkins of the board of library trustees.

Local activist Susan Skinner singled out Selich and Tucker as “incomprehensible” choices who she said have a history of “undermin[ing] our trust” — a reference to the pair’s support of the ill-fated Measure Y, a 2014 local ballot initiative that would have updated the general plan to allow more development in the Newport Center business district and limit it along the more residential coast.

She also said Selich was behind a 2016 council directive to make a referendum petition challenging the then-planned Museum House condominium development about 1,000 pages, holding a copy of the 10-pound petition aloft for emphasis.

Skinner did not say who she would prefer for the committee instead.

But resident Lynn Lorenz did have a specific person in mind: 2018 City Council candidate Tim Stoaks, who she said would balance the committee and “demonstrate to the residents of Newport Beach that your desire for openness is real.”

Stoaks is active with Line in the Sand, a political affiliate of local activist group Still Protecting our Newport, which has taken a hard stance against several development projects in the city. Stoaks’ bid for the District 3 City Council seat in the November election fell 36 votes short to incumbent Marshall “Duffy” Duffield.

“It doesn’t make sense to unroll a well-thought-out procedure of updating the general plan if the components of the plan, in this case the composition of the steering committee, are not sound,” Lorenz told the council. “You’re making a political decision instead of a popular one, and in so doing you run the risk of jinxing the [general plan update] from the start, particularly if the role of the steering committee is to interface with the public, lending a sympathetic ear to gather important information for the rest of the process.”

The council voted 6-0, with Duffield absent, to expand the committee while getting started with the recommended lineup.

Councilman Jeff Herdman said he supports Selich, Gardner, Tucker, Stevens and Watkins but said he hopes the eventual larger committee would represent a broad spectrum of volunteers.

Councilwoman Joy Brenner, one of the council members who selected and recommended the current five, said they have a wealth of experience, though she doesn’t always agree with their views.

The consultant that will author the general plan update is expected to be in place this summer.

The city will then spend about a year on “listen and learn” outreach before the consultant begins writing a comprehensive plan. Public forums generally will cover land use, housing, traffic, sea level rise, sustainability and, specifically, the future of development in the John Wayne Airport area, Banning Ranch, Mariner’s Mile, Newport Center, and the harbor and bay.

The full general plan update process is expected to take about three years.