Newport's application for new park postponed

The California Coastal Commission's view of itself can be romantic.

When its longtime executive director, Peter Douglas, died earlier this month, a staff tribute turned to "The Lord of the Rings" for a comparison: "For more than 40 years, he has been Gandalf to the developers' balrog, standing resolute on tenuous footing while declaring, 'You. Shall. Not. Pass.'"

The tenuousness of the commission's footing may be a matter of debate, but its denials are rarely so declamatory, couched instead in the language of bureaucracy: "Gnatcatcher. Observances. In. The. Southeast. Polygon."

The city of Newport Beach has plans to build Sunset Ridge Park on the hillside above West Coast Highway and Superior Avenue, and was due to present those plans to the commission again Thursday. The application, though, was postponed once again, with city spokeswoman Tara Finnigan saying that the commission's heavy workload was a factor.

The question is whether the city's plans for baseball and soccer fields, gardens and bathrooms sufficiently accommodate the California gnatcatcher, a tiny blue-gray bird that hops and flits through nearby sagebrush while eating bugs.

The bird has been designated a threatened species, so the commission has the job of protecting its habitat: several stands of sagebrush in the area. Commission staff has also taken on the job of protecting the gnatcatcher's potential but nonexistent habitat.

Planners can design around the sagebrush, but the potential habitat could cover much of the 13.7-acre parcel, which would mean changing or scrapping plans for the park.

The wider habitat doesn't exist currently because the site gets mowed once or twice a year due to being fire hazard. A biologist for the commission determined that if the mowing didn't take place, lots of sunflowers would grow there, which "would provide important natural resources and provide necessary ecological services for the California gnatcatcher."

The commission staff argues that because the city has no Coastal Development Permit for the site, for the mowing to be legal, it would have to predate the 1972 initiative that created the commission.

"If the periodic mowing is legal, this area would not be [protected]," a commission report states. "However, if the mowing is not legal, the area would be [protected]."

The city says that the mowing has been taking place since the 1960s, and that it's permissible regardless.

"In 1993, I took over all weed abatement duties for the Fire Department," former Newport Beach Fire Marshal Steve Bunting wrote in an email to city staff. "It was explained to me by my predecessor … that I never needed to worry about the site because 'Caltrans always took care of it.'"

The California Department of Transportation cuts down the plants with a tractor at least once a year before fire season, officials said.

Caltrans owned the site from the 1950s until 2006, when Newport Beach bought it for a park and continued the mowing.

At a presentation to the commission in November, a city representative showed a series of aerial photos of the denuded site from throughout the '70s, '80s and '90s as evidence of continual mowing.

"This wasn't easy info to gather [due to Caltrans' complex files], but the city went about it with diligence and was able to produce some data," Finnigan said.

Commission staff argues that the city would still have to submit a "vested rights claim" to continue the mowing.

The city has taken the position that the Fire Code authorizes the mowing.

Commissioner Steve Blank said at the hearing that the Fire Code is often used as a pretext: "It has been used by developers to justify removing [protected vegetation] permanently."

He argued that the Fire Code actually allowed the city to place environmental concerns first, and let the sunflowers grow.

Fire Marshal Ron Gamble said last November that it wasn't going to happen.

"Regardless of how this meeting goes today, I will continue to do the weed abatement and provide the protection for those homes," he said.

Since then, the city has redesigned its plan to eliminate a controversial access road that may have disturbed the gnatcatchers. The new plan is for parkgoers to park across Superior and walk a quarter mile to the fields.

The plan still calls for a soccer field where sunflowers could grow.

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