Newport council rescinds its approval of Museum House plan

At a tense meeting Tuesday night, the Newport Beach City Council voted to rescind its earlier approval of Museum House, a hotly contested 25-story condominium tower proposed for Newport Center.

On a 5-2 vote, with council members Scott Peotter and Will O'Neill dissenting, the move overturned the council’s approvals in November and December of Related California’s project that was slated to replace the Orange County Museum of Art at 850 San Clemente Drive. The museum wanted to sell its property to Related and build a new museum in Costa Mesa.

The vote to rescind originated with Councilman Jeff Herdman, who said it coincides with the will of the people, thousands of whom supported a referendum effort challenging the project.

The council opted not to schedule an election this year or in 2018 that would have sent the project’s fate to Newport voters.

Museum House was the subject of a referendum petition effort in December by local activist group Line in the Sand, which gathered nearly 14,000 signatures in about two weeks.

Opponents have called the tower a bad fit for Newport Center and a potential contributor to increased traffic. Supporters have praised the project as something that would contribute millions of dollars in tax revenue toward city projects and schools.

The Orange County registrar of voters office certified Line in the Sand’s petition in January. The matter was then forwarded to the council for a final decision.

Tensions were high at the outset of Tuesday’s discussion, with cheers from audience members who opposed the development and Mayor Kevin Muldoon threatening to call a recess to stop the disruptions.

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Several residents accused the council — three of whom were not on the panel last year, when Museum House was first approved — of not listening to the public’s wishes on the project and that it would hurt their chances at reelection.

One man said the council needed to “crawl out of the sewer.”

One woman, however, called Museum House a “world-class” project in an area of the city that already contains high-rises.

Patrick Strader, a land-use consultant, pointed to Museum House’s unanimous approval from the Planning Commission. He was later jeered after calling concerns that Line in the Sand’s petitions were heavy a “hollow complaint.”

A council vote last year caused Line in the Sand’s petitions to contain approximately 1,000 pages each because they needed to have various documents attached.

On Monday, a letter by Related California attorney Sean Matsler requested that the council not decertify its earlier approval of Museum House’s environmental impact report.

On Tuesday, the council voted in favor of not rescinding the EIR, a move that activists felt means the project could come back.

Complicating matters has been a lawsuit filed against the council and Line in the Sand by the Orange County Museum of Art.

The lawsuit alleges that Line in the Sand’s petition is invalid because it didn’t comply with state elections code. OCMA contends the circulated petitions were printed in a font too small to read clearly and that they were missing necessary documents — concerns also raised by Related.

On Monday, OCMA’s case — largely stagnant since its Jan. 6 filing in Orange County Superior Court — progressed, with the museum asking the court to expedite its decision and force Newport Beach officials to argue their side by March 27 and Line in the Sand by March 10.

OCMA’s attorneys argued that the case needs to move forward because it’s a time-sensitive election matter.

The court denied the request.

Line in the Sand’s legal counsel, from Los Angeles-based Strumwasser and Woocher LLP, was critical of OCMA’s demands.

In court filings, Line in the Sand contended that OCMA waited until around Feb. 19 — some six weeks after filing its lawsuit — to serve the city and Line in the Sand with it.

“This case concerns fundamental rights reserved by the people of this state to engage in the ultimate direct democracy,” Line in the Sand’s attorneys wrote. “Thousands of Newport Beach voters signed the referendum petition at issue. These rights should not be needlessly abridged, and the defense of these rights requires adequate time.”

In those six weeks, OCMA has been building its case by assembling a variety of supportive documents, including statements from witnesses and supporters who argued that Line in the Sand’s signature gatherers, some of whom were paid through an outside consultant, were deceptive.

Many of the declarations said the petitions were difficult to read because of the small font and Line in the Sand’s team gave incorrect assertions to the public, saying Museum House would be the tallest building in Newport, was being built because OCMA was being “kicked out” of town and that the tower would bring in “thousands of residents” whose children would overrun the schools.

A public-relations consultant, hired by Related, said Line in the Sand’s supporters had “little regard for the facts of the matter or how the signatures were obtained.”

Twitter: @BradleyZint