Treading softly, Newport's new mayor goes her own way

NEWPORT BEACH — Her home is as independent as her politics.

Nancy Gardner, Newport Beach's new mayor, lives tucked behind a rich, messy garden, with a rusted gate and a canopy of wisteria draping over the front of her house.

Just across her street end are two stark white homes, one with predictable palms and neat turquoise trim.

Gardner, 69, has often voted in the minority during her five years on the City Council. She stakes out independent positions and follows an environmental agenda in the conservative-leaning city. But by compromising and forgoing issues too far to the left, she has managed to advance ideas, and has earned respect from peers.

"She's interested in achieving consensus," said Councilman Steve Rosansky, a past mayor. "She'll compromise when she needs to and she'll stick to her positions when she wants to."

Rosansky and the five other council members unanimously voted to name Gardner mayor Tuesday. The largely ceremonial position changes hands annually.

One of the most powerful parts of the job is its agenda-setting role. Outgoing Mayor Mike Henn used it to outsource city services, to reform city employee pensions and to begin revitalizing neighborhoods.

Gardner plans to address more "soft" measures, she said in her living room, next to a pastel painting of a surfer. After a few years of downsizing and merging city departments, she said government needs to "take a breath and be sure all the little things are in place."

She talked about replanting some of the city's urban forest — Newport has nearly 40,000 trees on public grounds, and many are reaching the end of their lifespans. This problem came into focus after a eucalyptus fell and killed a motorist in September. Since then, officials have cut down nearly half of the city's 400 blue gum eucalyptus trees.

"We've been pretty reactive up to this point," said Gardner, who has nectarine, peach and apple trees in her plot.

As she looks forward, she can't count on backing from groups like the Sierra Club. The group and other environmentalists refused to endorse Gardner in her second election, after she supported Sunset Ridge Park, a proposed sports park on a bluff in West Newport.

That park has been mired in the controversy over the planned adjacent Banning Ranch development. As the 1,400-home Banning project winds it way through the entitlement process, Gardner will likely be leading the council's meetings.

"Generally speaking, if you're an environmentalist … you're looked at as being biased, but she's been able to work well with others," said former Councilwoman Jean Watt, a similar activist who was passed up as mayor in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the city had a stronger rift between the business community and the environmental groups.

Gardner said she likes the idea of keeping coastal land as open space, but doesn't see any realistic way to pay for the purchase and cleanup of Banning Ranch, an active oil drilling site. The developer has agreed to pay for a cleanup and leave half of the 400 acres open.

She does take issue with the water supply assessment in the development's environmental impact report; she believes it relies on too many assumptions.

Water is her forte. Born and raised in Newport Beach, Gardner grew up surfing with her father, Robert Gardner, a well-respected and colorful jurist who has since died. Nancy co-founded the Newport Beach chapter of the Surfrider Foundation in the early 1990s, and has advocated for water quality since then.

Other quality-of-life and environmental issues have cropped up recently. Gardner stewarded a ban on smoking in public parks, but shied away from banning it citywide or on restaurant patios. When the council began preparing for sea-level rise, she avoided any talk of global warming, and instead focused on the risk to property.

"It's the economics," she said of winning support for environmental issues like water quality. "Forget the dolphins."

Economics, though, are admittedly not her strength. Gardner was the marketing director for Century 21 Real Estate Corp., and retired before she started working with Surfrider.

She said her career in politics could be an inspiration for her young girls like her granddaughter. Gardner has one daughter, who lives in Emerald Bay with her husband and three children.

"You see so many suits and ties," she said casually, in faded jeans and slippers. "It's nice to have a slightly different perspective."

mike.reicher@latimes.com

Twitter: @mreicher

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