When Evans Hotels first proposed a 600-room hotel for the high-profile

Newport Dunes site, we knew it would be controversial.

After all, there are several residential communities -- including a

mostly senior citizen-occupied mobile home park -- surrounding the


Further, the Dunes sits on the environmentally sensitive Back Bay and,

at East Coast Highway and Jamboree Road, it is one of the busiest traffic

areas in the city.

But most importantly, plopping any good-sized development at the Dunes

would take away one of the precious few undeveloped slices of Upper

Newport Bay and Newport Harbor.

As the debate has worn on for the past year and a half, the

controversy we expected has grown to magnificent proportions. Not only

has it invigorated a segment of the community that is doggedly fighting

the development, it has taken up countless hours at public meetings and

even helped to prompt a ballot measure to go before voters in November.

To the credit of the project's critics and the Planning Commission,

the monstrous 600-unit project has been scaled down significantly: at 470

rooms,it's only about 50,000 square feet bigger than what Evans Hotels

could build on the site now and has a long list of valuable conditions

attached to reduce the project's impact on our community.

Still, those who say the current proposal is just too big a project

for that piece of sensitive land are correct.

But they are off the mark when they say that what the company has

entitlement for today -- a 275-room hotel with 15,000 square feet of

free-standing restaurant space and 5,000 square feet of commercial area

that doesn't need any further environmental study or city approval -- is

just fine.

In fact, although it is technically smaller, we believe that project

could have a much greater impact on the surrounding environment than the

one being proposed.

It's clear why Dunes critics are using that argument. They are banking

on Evans Hotels never building the "family-style inn" for which they have

approval (company officials have often said the economics just aren't

there for that type of development.)

But before you decide to take that risk, consider these facts:

* The approval for the 275-room development, as spelled out in a 1988

agreement with the county, will never expire.

* Nothing prevents Evans Hotels from selling out its leasehold

interest in the property to another operator.

* That operator could build the massive hotel, restaurants and retail

space without so much as talking to the Planning Commission or City


The best thing for that property would be to leave it the way it is.

But the way to ensure that is not to kill the proposed project.

If people like Susan Caustin and Bert Ohlig really want to preserve

the Dunes, they ought to put their money where their mouth is.

How about getting a measure on the ballot asking Newport Beach

residents to tax themselves enough to purchase Evans Hotels' long-term

interest in the property and keep it open space forever?

It would be a safe bet to say that even certain Planning Commissioners

and City Council members would be the first to sign that petition.

But in the meantime, the commission and the council should continue to

push the project forward, making a deal with the Evans family that they

will get either the money for the land or the hotel they are proposing.

In reality, we don't expect Newport Beach residents to step up to the

plate and try to preserve the lagoon property -- after all, they chose

not to spare the beautiful Castaways bluffs from development.

However, we do hope they can prove us wrong.

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