Commentary: Banning Ranch traffic agreement is a win for Costa Mesa

Contrary to the negative assessment recently ascribed to the Banning Ranch traffic mitigation agreement by Councilwoman Wendy Leece and her followers, the traffic accord is truly a win for Costa Mesa.

Despite that fact, Leece has predictably appealed the council's decision. (This latest time-wasting appeal was filed, despite the decision being in line with our professional staff's recommendation).

Costa Mesa staff and leadership understood that the agreed terms resulted in mitigation funding levels significantly higher than those that could possibly be extracted through the legal process. We also appreciated the goodwill of the developer, Newport Banning Ranch LLC (NBR), which worked closely with the city to understand the traffic impacts to create a basis for determining the costs of mitigating their impacts.

An important point to remember is this: Costa Mesa has never before received a dime of traffic mitigation voluntarily given by a project outside of our city, and has never received a dime from taking legal action against an outside project. This settlement is unprecedented in Costa Mesa.

How did we manage to get a substantial offer for mitigation in this case? Contrary to the image of the oft-maligned evil developers, NBR has long engaged city staff and leadership to help shape a project that makes sense and will help lift our city.

City staff began active work with the proposed Banning Ranch development during the environmental impact report. Staff provided necessary traffic and land-use data and participated in the analyses of the study.

Based on the results of the traffic analyses part of the EIR, staff began negotiation for the mitigation of Banning Ranch traffic impacts in the city. As a result, where significant impacts occurred, staff sought necessary mitigations in the form of a fee payment.

A "traffic mitigation agreement" was developed in which the EIR stated "traffic" impacts as well as their resultant mitigations were measured and understood. Based upon the clear understanding of the impacts, city staff was able to negotiate a settlement of about $4.4 million to mitigate Banning Ranch's traffic impacts in Costa Mesa.

This agreement is null and void if the project's traffic impacts in Costa Mesa increase for any reason.

According to the city's existing Traffic Impact Fee Program, a Costa Mesa development of this size with similar impacts would be charged a total of about $1.7 million for its traffic impacts. Therefore, because Banning Ranch is outside Costa Mesa and thus outside the city's legal jurisdiction, securing $4.4 million is considered more than sufficient to address Banning Ranch's fair share of the required improvements.

Some folks complain that the mitigations will cost $8 million to $10 million, and thus claim the settlement is not enough, because it is far short of that number. What these critics fail to understand is that the necessary mitigations are not entirely a result of the traffic from NBR, but to also mitigate traffic from many different sources. NBR's share of the necessary mitigations is much less than half of the total.

It is also important to note that if the council had decided to reject this "traffic mitigation agreement," the proposed project would have still moved forward through Newport Beach's Planning Commission and City Council approvals (as it did), without securing monetary consideration to pay for mitigations in Costa Mesa.

Barring a traffic mitigation agreement, the city of Costa Mesa could elect to take legal action and take the EIR (if and when finally approved and certified) to the courts to fight for our due. (The approach opponents seem to prefer.) There are distinct problems with that approach.

Because the developer has been willing to negotiate to pay its "fair share" for the mitigation of its impacts in accordance with a lawful nexus, our staff feels the city's chances of prevailing in court would be very minimal. Additionally, it is worth noting that this agreement had no bearing upon Newport Beach's actions, and contrary to the belief held by project opponents, Costa Mesa has no authority to stop the project.

Critics scream: "It's not enough … you're selling the city short." If this were all the consideration the city eventually received, they might have a point.

What they don't understand is that this agreement is only a traffic-related agreement. Thus, it does not rule out the council or the city undertaking further discussions with the developer on topics other than traffic. Rather than being "too little," this agreement scores a victory for Costa Mesa residents with an unprecedented, amicably negotiated, traffic mitigation agreement with a project outside of our city.

This traffic agreement does not preclude any continuation or initiation of negotiations on other aspects of the project. Given that our staff and elected officials have been in the loop and working on a positive, goodwill basis with NBR for many years, I anticipate that positive discussions between the property owner, our staff and elected officials will continue to develop.

Because any remaining benefits to be achieved will be policy, rather than technical in nature, I have asked Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer and Councilman Steve Mensinger to consider taking responsibility for further goodwill discussions with the property owner to determine the full extent of the benefits that Costa Mesa will enjoy from the Banning Ranch project.

Based upon our staff's excellent job securing a solid traffic mitigation agreement, the years of positive interaction between the city and the project, and the council members' negotiating skill and concern for the community, I believe good things are ahead in Costa Mesa's future.

ERIC BEVER is the mayor of Costa Mesa.

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