Residents sue to block Upper Newport Bay project

Two residents have sued Newport Beach in hopes of blocking a residential, commercial and marine development proposed for a section of the Upper Newport Bay.

Bert Ohlig and Susan Skinner, who make up the Stop the Dunes Hotel group, sued the city, council members and others March 14 in Orange County Superior Court, alleging that the parties did not provide adequate review of the project's potential environmental impacts.

The city and a potential operator of the proposed Back Bay Landing project have called the lawsuit meritless.

The Back Bay is an "absolute jewel in the community" that deserves to be maintained in a manner true to the city's character, said Ohlig, the group's treasurer.

Plans for the Back Bay Landing development, which has received preliminary approvals from the city, have changed drastically since they were first presented to residents, who now may feel blindsided by the final result, Ohlig said.

"I was shocked," he said of seeing the plans in the environmental impact report, or EIR. "It's not what we'd been lead to believe it was, and that's concerning to me."

The project site measures a little more than 31 acres, of which Bayside Village Marina LLC hopes to develop roughly 7 acres.

The proposed development, which would be bordered by the Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort and the Bayside Village Mobile Home Park to the east, would include commercial, residential and marine-related uses, such as a boat storage facility and a parking structure.

Architecture for the area will be coastal Mediterranean, "constructed to evoke the experience of a seaside village," according to material on the city's website.

Council members approved the final EIR on Feb. 11 and made the changes to the general and coastal land-use plans needed for the project to move forward.

The Planning Commission has yet to consider the specific project design, which may require additional environmental analysis.

Among its complaints, Stop the Dunes Hotel alleges that the public was not given enough time to comment on the EIR for the mixed-use development proposal for 300 E. Coast Hwy.

Additionally, the EIR failed to look fully at issues such as aesthetics, air quality and geology, according to Stop the Dunes Hotel, which is represented by local lawyer and former Planning Commissioner Robert Hawkins.

Council members also did not discuss the project in detail, and it "is much more significant, involves substantial changes to the environment, is larger, much more extensive than the project described and analyzed in the EIR, and environmentally more impactful," the group alleges in court documents.

Different groups own the Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort and the Back Bay Landing project, but there is some partner overlap in each, said Michael Gelfand, president of Terra Vista Management Inc., which will manage both.

Gelfand said the EIR took three years and involved extensive communication with city staff and community groups.

"We believe that their lawsuit is completely meritless, and not only that, but they didn't adhere to the statutory time requirements that they needed to raise an issue," he said. "We just think that this is ridiculous."

City Atty. Aaron Harp agreed that the complaints were without merit, according to an email written in anticipation of a suit based on Hawkins' remarks at the Feb. 11 meeting.

"Prior to approval of the project, the City Council considered the environmental impact report as well as the comments made by Mr. Hawkins," Harp wrote.

The council can appeal the Planning Commission's future decision on the project's specifics. The California Coastal Commission will also be involved in reviewing the project.

Stop the Dunes Hotel serves to preserve and protect the bay and preserve the surrounding neighborhoods, according to the court documents. It was founded years ago to help fight the development of a large hotel in the area by previous owners of the Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort.

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