A referendum to delay development of a large Irvine Co. community is illegal and should be kept off the Nov. 3 ballot, a judge ruled Friday.
However, Superior Court Judge Mason L. Fenton called his decision "tentative" and gave a citizens group until Wednesday to file legal arguments to persuade him to change his mind. After hearing those arguments, Fenton said, he will make his final ruling July 27.
A group calling itself Irvine Citizens Against Overdevelopment spent a month collecting 7,637 signatures to halt the City Council's approval last November of a 2,885-home Irvine Co. community that will be built next to the existing Northwood community. The proposed community, called Northwood 5 by city planners, would be located in unincorporated territory just outside of Irvine's city limits--home to a huge citrus grove.
Members of the citizens group were disappointed by Fenton's preliminary ruling.
"We believe the judge is wrong, and we will enter an appeal," said Meryl Schwartz, one of the leaders of Irvine Citizens Against Overdevelopment.
The matter wound up before a judge after Deputy City Atty. John L. Fellows III advised the council that the referendum was probably illegal. Fellows said the referendum attempted to overturn the residential zoning for the property rather than challenge the validity of the general plan as a whole, as it should have done.
The general plan outlines the Northwood 5 property for residential development and has been in place since after 1988 when voters approved the city's open space agreement. The agreement states that the Irvine Co. will be able to develop certain areas in return for donating other properties to the city as permanent open space.
The open-space agreement calls for the Irvine Co. to donate 961 acres of land in the nearby hills for a future county park after it has received approval to build on Northwood 5.
Consequently, Fellows recommended that the council sue the citizens group and allow the courts to resolve the matter.
In his ruling Friday, Fenton said that he was required to follow past judicial rulings and find the referendum illegal.
Fellows said the decision upholds "the integrity of the planing process in the city of Irvine."
"What the referendum would have done is totally disrupt this process," Fellows said.
The ruling that the Northwood 5 zoning referendum is illegal follows a similar case in Norco in 1985, which Fenton cited in his ruling. The Norco referendum was also kept off the ballot after courts said that overturning the zoning for the property would make the zoning disagree with the community's general plan.