Commentary: Don't misrepresent conservancy's aim

As a long-time Newport Beach resident, I was surprised and very disappointed by Mayor Keith Curry's public response to the state Supreme Court's decision on Sunset Ridge Park, as quoted in the Daily Pilot ("Sunset Ridge Park gets OK," March 29) and the Newport Beach-Corona del Mar Patch.

I'm not disappointed that Sunset Ridge Park will become a reality. I've always supported that result. If the land is not to be protected and preserved as coastal open space, then a park is the right solution. Although, along with many other West Newport residents, I would have preferred a passive park.

On March 28, the court decided not to hear the Banning Ranch Conservancy's appeal of a lower court's ruling on the Sunset Ridge Park environmental impact report.

In Patch's article, Curry said he was "'elated' with the court's decision," but went on to say that the conservancy's "goal was to block a community-supported park project. The conservancy failed."

In fact, the conservancy was one of the early grassroots organizations in favor of a park on Sunset Ridge and is on record as supporting a park project from the beginning. The conservancy opposed only the controversial, growth-inducing Banning Ranch entrance road to the park, which would have become the first phase of Bluff Road, thus enabling the proposed mega-development of Banning Ranch.

In later deliberations, when the conservancy asked that the California Coastal Commission rethink allowing Encelia, an essential component of critical habitat for the ranch's endangered species, to be destroyed by the placement of a baseball diamond, the commission voted in favor of the field. The conservancy accepted this decision with grace and good will, despite concerns that it might set an unfortunate precedent for future environmental causes.

The conservancy's goal was never to block a community-supported park project. It supported the project right along with the community.

Full disclosure: I recently joined the conservancy's board of directors. I'm also a 40-year Newport resident who loves this beautiful city enough to want to protect its coastline and conserve its precious natural resources. But apparently, according to Curry, that makes me a "cynical obstructionist," along with the rest of the conservancy.

In the Daily Pilot article, Curry said that Newport's residents, taxpayers and young people "were being held hostage by this very cynical group of obstructionists."

That group is much larger than Curry might realize. The conservancy's concerns for the environment are shared by residents of Newport Beach, Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach who may well count in the thousands, and who in my personal experience are utterly without cynicism in their desire to see Banning Ranch, a 400-acre parcel adjoining Sunset Ridge Park, saved from development and preserved for the public and for posterity as the last link in the Orange Coast River Park system.

To my knowledge many of those residents also supported the Sunset Ridge Park project. But even if they didn't, they don't deserve to be maligned for exercising their democratic right to oppose development projects proposed by the city, even if those projects are parks.

The conservancy board itself is made of up residents who are good people, solid citizens and members of families with deep roots in south Orange County. It isn't right or fair that they're being portrayed in a negative light when their only objective is to safeguard the environment and protect their communities and their neighbors. I'm new on the board and hope I can say without sounding self-congratulatory that many would see them as heroes.

According to the Patch article, "City Councilwoman [and former Mayor] Nancy Gardner said that defending the project was an expensive battle for Newport Beach, but in the end was worth it." That's a responsible and professional comment we can all respect, whether or not we agree.

Name-calling is never appropriate. Neither is intentional misrepresentation of the facts, but I'm more than willing to give Curry the benefit of the doubt. It's entirely possible that the inaccuracies in his comments were not intentional.

Residents have the right to participate in local governance by speaking out, especially against actions they consider unfair or not representative. I believe they also have the responsibility. My greater concern is when our elected officials don't live up to their responsibility to encourage more public participation, not less, and to treat all the members of their constituencies with equal regard and respect.

SUZANNE FORSTER lives in Newport Beach.

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