Commentary: Politics aside, Banning Ranch agreement is good for Costa Mesa

It’s always a bit dicey to scan the merits and malignancies of an issue through the prism of politics. Facts become pink elephants, context vanishes and fear runs around in our heads breaking all the dishes. I think that’s what’s happening in this regrettable dust-up over the Banning Ranch traffic mitigation agreement.

The Banning Ranch project is good — and, in my opinion, vital — for Costa Mesa. Thousands of new construction-related jobs, new consumers, more retails sales, new sales tax revenues, more revenues for local schools, new public recreation amenities and public access to one of the most beautiful coastal lands in Southern California.

But to the point here, the traffic mitigation agreement is reasonable and more than fair. I’ll share why I think so in a minute.

This Tuesday the Costa Mesa City Council will noodle on Councilwoman Wendy Leece’s request to re-hear the council’s July 17 approval of the Banning Ranch traffic pact. The agreement would funnel about $4.4 million into the city’s bank account to help pay for road improvements needed to manage the roughly 15,000 daily car trips (not all of which will impact Costa Mesa streets) the Banning Ranch community is projected to generate. That’s about $4.4 million more than Costa Mesa has the legal authority to extract from the developer.

Leece believes that’s not good enough and that the city committed itself to the agreement too soon.

Now, I have the utmost respect and admiration for Leece. I had the pleasure of working with her on the Costa Mesa Parks and Recreation Commission. She cares deeply about Costa Mesa, and her commitment to the community is as real as it gets. Nevertheless, on this one I think she’s wrong and the council should stick with its decision to enter into the agreement with the Banning Ranch folks.

Here’s why.

Costa Mesa has no legislative authority to approve or deny the Banning Ranch project. That’s because the project site is on unincorporated land within the sphere of influence of Newport Beach. Neither does Costa Mesa have the say-so to independently impose on the developer any kind of fee to help bankroll fresh roadway bandwidth within the city to accommodate traffic from the new community.

Were the project in Costa Mesa, the city could legally impose roughly $1.7 million in traffic mitigation fees (although it could certainly negotiate a larger paycheck in exchange for project approval as it did with the Home Ranch development). But that the city doesn’t wear the legal badge to extract any money where Banning Ranch is concerned makes the $4.4 million kitty a win.

Contrarian voices on the matter — and Leece in her re-hearing request — disagree. They argue that the mitigation agreement is premature, insufficient and jettisons Costa Mesa’s right to formally oppose the project before the California Coastal Commission or to challenge it in court.

The council’s July 17 approval of the traffic mitigation was not premature.

And here’s why.

If Banning Ranch is approved by the Coastal Commission as is, the agreement assures that Costa Mesa will receive the $4.4 million for traffic improvements. Without the agreement, Costa Mesa would very like receive nothing, and would be left to fumble in its own pockets to finance the roadway improvements on the taxpayers’ dime.

In that case, I suppose Costa Mesa could spend more money on more lawyers (a trending pattern in the city these days) to try to convince a court that Costa Mesa should receive “something” to offset the cost of traffic impact improvements. But even if it prevails in that instance, Costa Mesa Deputy Chief Executive Officer Peter Naghavi — a man who cut his teeth in the traffic engineering business — counsels that the best the city could hope for is the $1.7 million it could legally impose in traffic fees if Banning Ranch were in Costa Mesa.

Locking in the $4.4-million pact now secures about $2.6 million more than Costa Mesa could hope to get in the off chance it triumphs in a protracted and expensive court battle somewhere down the road.

The other blur is that the $4.4-million haul won’t be enough to bankroll all the road improvements the project’s draft environmental impact report requires to mitigate Banning Ranch traffic. Well, that’s true. Costa Mesa staff says the tab is somewhere around $8 million. The question is this: Is it fair or reasonable to demand the Banning Ranch folks foot the entire bill for roadway improvements in Costa Mesa when only 65% of the traffic from the new community will impact Costa Mesa streets, according to the traffic studies in the environmental impact report?

I don’t think it is.

But I can imagine that the inhabitants of the 1,375 homes proposed for the new community will more often than not gas up their cars at Costa Mesa fueling stations, generating — in perpetuity — not an insignificant amount of gas-tax and sales-tax revenues, which — over time — will more than offset the remaining road improvement costs.

Finally, it is suggested we believe that the Banning Ranch traffic mitigation agreement is bad for our city because it removes our right to formally oppose the project at a future date. First, the conclusion is too sweeping. If, for instance, the project results in greater traffic volume or if access points to the community change, the agreement can be pried open for a another look. I think that’s fair.

But I don’t think it’s unfair for the developer to ask that we holster our weapons where the project is concerned in exchange for $4.4 million they’re not legally required to give us.

All that said, and politics aside, the Banning Ranch project and the traffic mitigation agreement are good for Costa Mesa.

BYRON DE ARAKAL is a former chairman of the Costa Mesa Parks and Recreation Commission, a former Daily Pilot columnist and a 19-year resident of Costa Mesa.