'It's not fair to the public'

NEWPORT BEACH — After the Planning Commission chairman resigned earlier this month, the Newport Beach City Council is moving swiftly to appoint a new commissioner.

At its special meeting Tuesday, the council plans to make an appointment, although this move apparently would shortcut the usual required public notice.

Mayor Mike Henn said the quick selection is needed because the commission will soon have to review the Banning Ranch environmental impact report. But other council members and a vocal council critic disagree, contending that Henn is rushing unnecessarily and the commission won't see the project until early next year.

At its last meeting, the council split 4 to 3 in favor of the hurried appointment.

"We just want to move forward rapidly here and deal with the weighty issues associated with Banning Ranch," Henn said at the Nov. 22 meeting.

The earliest that the commissioners would see the residential and commercial development's final environmental impact report is in January, according to the Planning Department. Before then, the city has to respond to hundreds of comments about the draft document.

"This thing's been dragging on for three or four years now, I don't think another meeting is going to matter," said Councilman Steve Rosansky, who voted against the rushed appointment. "We do have a process for allowing the public to participate and find out about open positions. I just don't like the way that's being handled … it's not fair to the public."

The council's policy for unexpected vacancies calls for at least 10 working days after formally announcing the opening before it can make an appointment. The clerk posted the position Wednesday, so under the policy, the council might have to wait until its Dec. 13 meeting.

Henn said the city should mainly rely on planning commission applications already on file, and he specifically mentioned Larry Tucker, a developer and commissioner between 1999 and 2006.

Tucker has "special knowledge and expertise and understanding of the [Banning Ranch] issue that could be brought to bear right away," Henn said Tuesday.

Perhaps Henn was referring to Tucker's stake in Baker Ranch, the co-developer of a 380-acre property in Lake Forest. Tucker has been working since at least the early 2000s to develop a master-planned community with 2,815 homes, parks, roads, a trail and a mixed-use site. Lake Forest city officials are now reviewing the Shea Baker Ranch application, according to the city's website.

Banning Ranch, similarly, is a proposed development with 1,375 homes, a hotel and a retail center on 400 acres of open space.

Preservationists have been working to derail Banning Ranch plans, and the Coastal Commission signaled at a recent meeting that Banning Ranch's road to approval could be rocky at best.

An obstacle for Henn might be Jim Mosher, a council critic, who contends that rushing the appointment is against state law. Mosher pointed to the law, which also requires 10 days notice, except for emergency appointments.

The council plans to appoint someone to fill the remainder of Chairman Charles Unsworth's term. It expires on June 30, 2012.

Unsworth said he resigned so someone could preside over the entire Banning Ranch deliberations. Ironically, if the council followed its standard procedure, it could elect to grant the new commissioner an additional four-year term, instead of just making an interim appointment.

Applications are due by 5 p.m. Monday, and can be found on the city's website.

mike.reicher@latimes.com

Twitter: @mreicher

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