Harlan: Tread carefully before altering Fairview Park

As I made my way from the parking lot to the grassy lawn for the Concerts in the Park finale this week at Fairview Park, a concerned Costa Mesan handed me a flier.

"Fairview Park in Jeopardy," it read in bold black letters, referring to a recent city proposal to build a parking lot and other facilities at the park's southwestern edge.

The city's Recreation and Parks Commission heard this item at its last meeting and wisely decided to postpone any decision due to questions about the project's proposed scope and considerable public outcry.

On its face, this seems to, and should be, a minor issue that can be resolved with clarification from staff and open communication with the people who voiced their concerns.

While the proposal is in bureaucratic limbo, park preservation advocates are gearing up for another battle to ensure that a city park develops consistent with its master plan.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time a major city park has been the recent subject of an unwanted plan for improvement. You may recall the City Council-driven proposal to augment TeWinkle Park's athletic complex, substantially altering the nature of that facility, died begrudgingly late last summer.

Having spent a considerable amount of time at Fairview Park organizing and managing the concerts series the past few years, I know how passionate people are about having a special place like this in Costa Mesa.

By any measure it is a unique and spectacular piece of property. The bluff-top views, dirt trails, restored wetlands, model train tracks and natural open space provide a welcoming and wondrous environment.

Because of Fairview Park's size and importance, the community memorialized its vision for the 208 acres in a master plan. Originally approved by the council in 1998, and revised slightly in 2001 and 2002, the 201-page document details how the park should be developed.

The vision is articulated simply and clearly — "The master plan presents a park for passive uses."

Furthermore, the master plan notes that "the concept of a park with a natural setting and a very low level of 'improvements,' in terms of buildings or other construction, appears to have widespread community support."

Over the years the community support has not waned. At the last few general plan update workshops, and in conversations with others at the park this summer, I hear folks echo the same refrain: Keep Fairview Park a natural open space.

The problem with the city's recent proposal is that it fails to respect the spirit and letter of the master plan. The plan should not be a loose guide for the property's development and operation; it is, after all, a plan. Moreover, it is a plan that was produced with extensive community input and investment, as well as financial resources.

The Fairview Park Master Plan was also created to guard against the desires of politicians and to ensure the community voices that shaped the plan are respected.

Here, the city's conceptual plan proposes 42 parking spaces; the master plan prescribes 10. Someone directed the city's consultant to significantly augment the scope of this project, or someone just failed to read what's delineated in the master plan. Either case is cause for concern.

Of course, plans need to be reviewed periodically to adjust to new conditions or future needs. Strictly adhering to the plan may not always be practical, feasible or cost effective.

But amendments to a plan should be made only after substantiating a need and carefully considering the matter in a transparent and inclusive public process. Ultimately, changes should not impair the overall community vision or set the stage for doing so.

And maybe that's what really concerns the park advocates who believe Fairview Park is in jeopardy.

Could expansion of a parking lot portend the demise of the city's beloved open-space preserve?

Is this just an initial effort to open the park for new, incompatible development?

Will the city's decision-makers faithfully implement the master plan or ignore it to satisfy their own substitute vision?

With a recently revived Fairview Park Advisory Committee installed by the council, I have no doubt the community will be keeping a watchful eye on how this proposal, and others, are handled.

The prospect of paving paradise may just make Fairview Park the source of more activity after all.

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

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