Harlan: Councilmen should explain their Banning votes

If you listened carefully July 17, about 10:30 p.m., you could hear Newport Banning Ranch LLC, the namesake project's developer, wrapping its arms around a huge pile of poker chips and drawing them near as it suppressed a smug smile.

Costa Mesa, suckers.

That's the image that came to mind after the Costa Mesa City Council majority approved an agreement with the developer to accept $4.4 million for traffic mitigation of the yet-to-be-entitled Banning Ranch project.

Oh, and the city walked away from the table only after signing away our legal rights to oppose the project too.

In two hours of public comment, all but one of the 35 speakers voiced their well-reasoned concerns about entering into an agreement with the developer so early in the entitlement process.

After the community consistently made its case that this action was premature, not based on all of the necessary facts and generally a horrible deal for all Costa Mesans, the council took all of 15 minutes to ask staff a handful of questions.

And before you could even blink, a motion was made and seconded, the question was called, and the council majority voted.

Maybe even more troubling than the vote was the fact that not one council member had the decency to explain his position to the public. (Councilwoman Wendy Leece dissented.)

Obviously, the proposed Banning Ranch development is a contentious issue (despite the fact that this item was placed on the consent calendar) and would impact the city as a whole.

While the questions from the dais may have shed some light on the councilmen's thought process, we deserve to hear directly from them why they cast their vote in favor of the agreement.

Here's a brief list of questions I'd like the councilmen to answer:

•Why are they taking any action now when the approval process will continue for at least another year?

Although the Newport Beach City Council, as expected, unanimously approved the project this week, the developer ultimately needs final approvals from the California Coastal Commission and other state and federal regulatory agencies. This is far from a sure thing, and will not be decided for several months, if not much longer. By accepting this agreement now, the council eliminated all of the city's leverage in the negotiating process. Why go all in now when there are plenty more cards to be played?

•Why are they willing to accept only $4.4 million for traffic mitigation when Costa Mesa is expected to bear the brunt of the project's impacts?

The developer would be required to pay the city $1.7 million anyway; so the additional $2.7 million basically represents the amount for us to keep quiet. For a development project that carries a price tag in the hundreds of millions, that's a pittance. And let's not forget that $4.4 million will not be paid in one lump sum, but over several years of the project's development.

•Why did it appear that the council had no role in actually negotiating the draft agreement?

If this proposed project was so important to the council — as it is to many Costa Mesans — then they should have brought in a professional negotiator. I mean no disrespect to city staff, but this is an unusual project and merits specialized, outside counsel. In fact, this is exactly what the council has been talking about doing for renegotiating the employee association contracts. Given the magnitude of this project and its lasting impacts on Costa Mesa, why is this situation any less important?

•Why are they willing to advocate so strongly for us against the Orange County Transportation Authority's proposed San Diego (405) Freeway expansion, a project over which Costa Mesa has no authority, but can't muster the same courage in dealing with Newport Beach? This may be the most disheartening result of the councilmen's vote.

Like the 405 project, Banning Ranch offers Costa Mesa few indirect benefits but plenty of direct impacts. Here, the community — organized, energized and unanimous in its opposition to the project — relied on its representatives to be their advocates and do the right thing again. Even postponing the vote would have earned the councilmen a little more respect and appreciation.

So why are these councilmen so eager to please our municipal neighbor and this developer right now? What are they really poised to gain?

Of course, protecting the interests of Costa Mesa is not a poker game. This is serious business, and we deserve better from our representatives. In fact, I'll gladly give up my column space next week to any of the councilmen who want to explain their vote.

Ante up.

JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.

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