Commentary: Council sold Costa Mesa short on Banning Ranch project

The 1,235 homes, hotel and 75,000 square feet of commercial development proposed at Banning Ranch will generate nearly 15,000 car trips a day ("$4.4-million contract approved,” July 19).

Under current plans, about two-thirds, or about 10,000 cars a day, would be expected to use Costa Mesa streets.

The city of Newport Beach, which has primary jurisdiction over the project, has recognized the effects on Costa Mesa streets. As far back as September, Newport Beach indicated that project developers must use their best efforts in good faith negotiations with Costa Mesa to pay for street improvements needed to handle traffic from Banning Ranch.

Newport Beach would require that the developer either complete the street projects or pay all fees to Costa Mesa within five years of approval by the various public agencies with jurisdiction over the project.

In October, Costa Mesa staff estimated that necessary improvements would cost $8 million to $10 million. But Tuesday night, the Costa Mesa City Council agreed to a deal with Banning Ranch developers for only $4.4 million to be paid out over about nine years.

As said by Newport Beach Councilwoman Leslie Daigle, “That’s right, Newport Beach negotiated to get $42 million from the developer and Costa Mesa negotiated to get $4.4 million from the developer. The city of Newport Beach will also be getting all the sales tax, property tax and transient occupancy tax generated from the property.”

All while Costa Mesa bears the brunt of impacts.

Costa Mesa will begin the road projects when construction of the 300th home commences, though the bulk of fees won’t be paid until later project phases, leaving Costa Mesa taxpayers to front construction costs.

Payments after 2015 would be increased to reflect consumer price index rises, while Costa Mesa taxpayers will absorb any costs of inflation before that. If anyone mounts a legal challenge to the city condemning his or her property to widen streets to accommodate Banning Ranch, Costa Mesa taxpayers will absorb that cost too.

Costa Mesa agreed not to sue over the project, which the Newport Beach City Council will consider Monday. The agreement takes effect as soon as it’s signed, so if someone else sues and stops the project, the agreement will still stand.

As if the bargain weren’t bad enough for Costa Mesa, the agreement puts a gag order on present and future councils. Costa Mesa gives away all rights, present and future, to object to any aspect of the development, regardless of impacts on Costa Mesa’s neighborhoods and residents. Costa Mesa couldn’t criticize future environmental studies or even oppose a permit for a nightclub with amplified music next to Costa Mesa homes.

The council’s agreement lets the developer change the project as long as traffic impacts in Costa Mesa don’t increase, even if other problems like increased noise or air pollution harm Costa Mesa residents.

In an Orwellian twist, and in further disregard of impacts on Costa Mesa residents, the Costa Mesa City Council agreed to pretend that “the project will not create and the [draft environmental impact report] does not identify any other adverse impacts on the city.”

But the draft report does identify other impacts on Costa Mesa, including excessive noise. And in November Costa Mesa requested that the project incorporate measures to reduce negative effects on aesthetics, noise and recreation — none of which are in the agreement.

This ill-considered deal was quietly placed on the consent calendar late last week without advance warning. Residents asked the council to take time to negotiate a better deal for Costa Mesa. After all, the project hasn’t been approved by Newport Beach or the 11 other public agencies that will review it.

Costa Mesa officials pushed ahead, claiming they have to act now, while Costa Mesa still has leverage, or we could end up with nothing. But Newport Beach is already requiring Banning Ranch developers to pay for street improvements in Costa Mesa.

Why would Costa Mesa sign off prematurely when no other agency has granted final approvals, and the project could be brought to a halt or radically changed due to litigation by others? And why would city officials sign away their fundamental duty to protect Costa Mesa residents and neighborhoods?

Former Mayor SANDRA GENIS is running for Costa Mesa City Council.