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A cautionary tale for developers

I wasn’t surprised that the Orange County Registrar of Voters notified the Newport city clerk’s office that it certified the required 5,619 signatures from Line in the Sand’s petition effort to bring the Museum House project to a referendum vote of the people.

Considering the group gathered almost 14,000 signatures, odds were this would be the outcome.

The big question now is what the controlling entity on the City Council, Team Newport, will do with this hot potato issue.

Will they rescind their prior approval of this project?


A move in this direction makes the most sense in my book, especially if these folks hold out any hope of saving their seats on the council come reelection in 2018.

And if they let the referendum move forward, I doubt voters would approve this project, considering all the negative press surrounding the efforts on behalf of Museum House supporters to block signature gathering and such.

With either option, the future for the Museum House project looks grim.

But high-density development isn’t just a Newport issue.


In Los Angeles for example, there’s the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, which seeks a two-year moratorium on developments that require zoning changes, which is headed to L.A. voters on the March 7 ballot. And Costa Mesa voters in November approved their own smart-growth initiative.

Last July, Museum House developer Bill Witte, chief executive of Related California, spoke about the issue at a real estate conference at downtown L.A.'s Omni Hotel.

An article in The Real Deal, a respected L.A.-based real estate magazine, states that “Witte warned the audience against the ‘typical default response from a developer’ of trying to get existing projects grandfathered in, sans restrictions — and waiting until the next cycle if it’s not possible. He also suggested avoiding the urge to rage against the machine.”

Witte’s advice to his audience was to encourage community discussions, as well as speaking with elected representatives.

“I think it behooves all of us to really kind of step back from our entitlement and our financing and try to band together, to have neighborhood discussions, to try to resolve these matters,” he said, according to the article.

“He encouraged developers to accept that there are certain areas that are protected from dense development, and where it is ill-advised to try to build something out of scale,” according to the article.

So I called Witte’s office Thursday to talk about the article and other recent Museum House developments but was told he was traveling on business. I wasn’t able to speak with him by my column deadline, but I do hope to speak to him soon and will report his perspective when I hear from him.

If we talk I would like to ask how a seemingly reasonable guy gives good advice on how to bring controversial building projects to success, yet winded up involved in the ugliest battle in Newport’s recent history over this Museum House?


In my opinion the Museum House referendum battle is one for the history books. It’s the poster child for what not to do when dealing with a project facing fierce community opposition.

If so, what’s happened in Newport should serve as a cautionary tale to other developers.

I believe this Museum House saga will create a shift in how developers proposing projects behave moving forward in Newport.

Are we already seeing this in Costa Mesa?

I was on the KOCI 101.5 FM show, Stu News Sunday with Tom Johnson this past weekend, as was newly elected Costa Mesa Councilman John Stephens.

We discussed the controversial project in his town to replace a College Park commercial center with a multistory housing development, and how developer Steve Sheldon withdrew his application ahead of the council’s meeting.

Stephens praised Sheldon’s move here, as it was evident by residents’ concerns that more discussion was needed, which Stephens plans on having.

As I’ve said before, it’s not enough to just listen to residents’ concerns; leaders need to actually hear what’s being said and initiate compromise.


And that seems to be what Stephens is aiming for here — and not just when it comes to development. Fireworks are another subject he’s tackling.

“Tee up with John” is what he’s calling a meeting planned for 6 p.m. Thursday at the Costa Mesa Council Chambers.

Stephens explained he wants to start community a dialogue to explore ways of keeping illegal fireworks off Costa Mesa streets during Fourth of July, while preserving the safe and sane fireworks fundraising revenue stream for many local organizations.

We chatted about his ideas on how to balance this issue, and he’s got some interesting solutions.

Seems in Costa Mesa at least, communication is becoming the pathway to good government.

BARBARA VENEZIA lives in Newport Beach. She can be reached at