After more than 20 years of planning, the city of Newport Beach on Thursday received the California Coastal Commission's approval for Sunset Ridge Park.
City leaders rejoiced that their design changes finally swayed enough commissioners, who voted 8 to 4 during their third hearing on the matter.
The 14-acre sports park at Superior Avenue and West Coast Highway will add more fields for youth and other teams, which often have to travel across town for play.
Newport's historical west side wasn't developed with as much attention to recreation as modern master-planned communities, and the City Council has pushed park development plans.
"I never thought it would take this long, but I'm glad I'm here to see it happen," said Councilman Steve Rosansky, who represents the area and said building this park was his highest goal, although he likely will not see it finished before his term ends in November.
Rosansky and the city's top administrators traveled to Santa Cruz for the hearing, where they presented a new plan to restore California gnatcatcher habitat elsewhere in the city. It was a response to concerns that the park would destroy vegetation, which, if allowed to grow unchecked, could become foraging and nesting grounds for the protected birds.
Commission staff members recommended denying the project because the city mows plants on about three acres of the site, which contains disturbed encelia scrub, a known type of gnatcatcher habitat. Because the city had not obtained a permit for the brush clearance, the mowing was illegal, commission staff said.
But city officials maintained that the previous owner, the California Department of Transportation, cleared the site before the Coastal Act required such permits, and the brush clearance was essentially grandfathered.
Also, Fire Chief Scott Poster testified that the mowing was necessary to protect the adjacent Newport Crest condominiums and Hoag Hospital from fire and smoke.
Essentially, the commissioners who voted in favor of the project agreed that the land did not meet the threshold for environmentally sensitive habitat, which the Coastal Act requires they protect. They cited the long-term brush clearance and the lack of evidence that gnatcatchers forage or nest there. Some were concerned of setting a precedent in which potential habitat could be protected.
A few commissioners applauded the city's efforts to restore habitat elsewhere.
"In the long run, we're going to have a better coast with more gnatcatcher activity," said Commissioner Martha McClure. "Maybe we will end up with hundreds of gnatcatchers."
City officials said they would coordinate with commission staff to restore more brush in one of three areas: Buck Gully; Big Canyon; or John Wayne Gulch, an area near the Santa Barbara Drive police station.
On the Sunset Ridge site, the city plans for a baseball diamond that overlaps two soccer fields, a children's playground, a grass warm-up field, restrooms, pedestrian paths and a view station with a shade structure. None of the sports fields would have lights, and the park would be open daily from 8 a.m. until dusk.
The council has budgeted $9.3 million for the project this fiscal year.
In the final plans, parking will be across Superior in an existing 64-space parking lot designed for beachgoers. Parkgoers will have to cross the highway and walk up stairs near the intersection, or head west to a path that leads up the hill.
Originally, the city intended to build a road leading to a parking lot next to the park, but the commission rejected the road plans during its first hearing because of environmental concerns.
The Banning Ranch Conservancy sued the city to block it from building the road, but lost in court.
The city returned to the commission in July, and was given a tentative nod. Commissioners approved the project Thursday with the condition that city officials develop detailed plans for landscaping, parking management, drainage and pollution runoff, among others.
"There was pain and suffering, but it was certainly a big victory for the city family who has worked on this for so long," said Philip Bettencourt, a Newport resident who volunteers with the Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks and traveled to Santa Cruz to testify.
Also at the meeting were City Attorney Aaron Harp, City Manager Dave Kiff, Parks Director Laura Detweiler and Community Development Director Kim Brandt.
Some Newport Crest residents came to protest the plans for the bluff development, which is in the foreground of their ocean views.
"The development of Sunset Ridge affects Newport Crest more than anyone else in Newport Beach," said Ginny Lombardi, vice president of the Newport Crest Homeowners Assn.
Newport Beach bought the site from Caltrans in 2006, after city leaders planned for at least 15 years to build a community park. The land was part of the proposed Pacific Coast Freeway in the 1960s, but in 1971 Newport Beach voters rejected the freeway proposal, and the site has sat vacant ever since.
Former West Newport Councilwoman Jan Debay ran on a platform to build the park in 1992.