In a surprise vote, the Costa Mesa City Council on Tuesday night agreed to extend the Orange County Model Engineers' operating license by five years, a move that keeps the popular train rides in Fairview Park rolling along for a while longer.
The nonprofit's agreement, which expired this month, was extended through a motion approved by Council Members Gary Monahan, Wendy Leece and Sandy Genis. Mayor Jim Righeimer and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger dissented.
The original contract had been proposed to last through December 2014. Monahan's support for the measure came as a shock to many in the audience given that he usually votes with Righeimer and Mensinger.
"I was actually gonna vote [for the trains] to go until 2016, cause that's when I'll be off the council," quipped Monahan, whose children ride the trains.
The steam-powered trains, a Fairview Park staple since 1988, had been operating on a 25-year agreement and another 25 years had been sought. In July, the Parks and Recreation Commission recommended that the OCME's license be extended only through the end of next year.
The commissioners said the agreement should be examined again after the Fairview Park Citizens Advisory Committee reviews the park's master plan and today's community needs.
Righeimer stressed that "clearly, everybody in the community loves the trains … the trains are not leaving Fairview Park."
But he said having a private group monopolizing the real estate — possibly worth $80 million, or $2 million an acre — isn't practical until the citizens advisory committee finalizes its recommendations for uses in the park.
Leece countered, "I think its really unfair to show such disrespect for these people who have given so much to Costa Mesa, even if they don't live here, to give them 14 months."
Adults and children ride the trains — collectively known as the Mackerel Flats and Goat Hill Junction Railroad. The trains take up about 40 acres within the 208-acre park. The OCME operates a 7.5-inch gauge railroad and has more than 5 miles of track.
About 100 people make up the core, dues-paying OCME membership, and they have, in the 25-year history, invested an estimated $750,000 toward the trains, said member Hank Castignetti, who lives in Huntington Beach.
He said the group provides about 40,000 rides a year, or about 1 million over the 25 years. Rides are free, though donations are accepted.
The trains are regularly open one weekend a month. The OCME also has a 20,000-square-foot maintenance yard and restroom at the site.
"We've made a lot of friends and we've generated an awful lot of goodwill," Castignetti said before the meeting. "Some may see us as just a bunch of yahoos in funny hats, playing trains. I like to look at us as a sleeping giant."
He told the council that what his club provides is "not matched by man-made theme parks," noting how the trains are intertwined with the plants and wildlife within the park.
"Our relationship with nature is of paramount importance to the club," Castignetti said. "We take it very seriously."
Mayor: Examine motels' permits
Righeimer called for the city to examine the permits for two Costa Mesa motels.
He asked for city staff to bring the permits to the Planning Commission, which would examine the conditional-use permits for the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, 2277 Harbor Blvd., and Sandpiper Motel, 1967 Newport Blvd., at a future meeting.
Righeimer also called for more information on the number of long-term residents at those properties and added that the living conditions are deplorable.
"You go into these motel rooms and it breaks your heart," Righeimer said. "It is wrong to have people living in motels, with pimps and prostitutes and having children nearby."
He clarified that the intention is not boot people from the two motels: "I'm not looking for one person to be kicked out."
The Motor Inn was ordered to pay more than $40,000 in fines after an Aug. 15 investigation found 490 alleged violations, including unkempt conditions and hoarding. The motel has 236 rooms on nearly 4 acres.
As Righeimer made his announcement, a woman in the audience said the city needs to provide affordable housing. After a few warnings from the mayor about speaking out of turn, she was escorted out by police officers.
"I need to go home anyway," she said on her way out.
As of press time, the council had not yet discussed the Public Nuisance Abatement Ordinance or proposed parking lot in Fairview Park.
The ordinance, which the council last discussed in June, is designed to address quality-of-life issues, such as derelict or crime-ridden buildings. Critics have called it overly broad, though city officials have said it would streamline the code enforcement process and be used only sparingly.
The parking lot at Fairview Park, proposed for the northern terminus of Pacific Avenue, would have 10 spaces, four of which are handicapped. Several Pacific Avenue residents have protested its construction, partially on the grounds that it would increase traffic and ruin a natural element of the park.
Genis appealed the commission's approval, which brought the issue before the council.