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Newport Beach Voters Reject Koll Project

Development: First use of Greenlight Initiative sees building near John Wayne Airport turned back.


In a referendum being closely watched by planners and developers across Orange County, Newport Beach voters on Tuesday rejected plans to build a 10-story office project near John Wayne Airport.

The vote is considered significant because it's the first test of Newport Beach's landmark Greenlight Initiative, which requires a citywide referendum on all major developments.

Newport Beach is one of only a few local governments in the state to require such a vote, and experts have said the outcome will set the tone for development in the city and perhaps beyond.

With all ballots counted, Measure G, which would approve expansion of the Koll Center, was rejected by voters, 59.5% to 40.5%. The vote total was 6,251 against the measure and 4,256 for it.

Voter turnout was 22.3%, with just 10,573 of the city's 47,422 registered voters going to the polls.

Evelyn Hart, a former mayor of Newport Beach and opponent of the Koll Center expansion, said she was pleased but not surprised by the results.

"We have an electorate that is well-informed, and they see the big picture. We're concerned about traffic in Newport Beach, and this has a lot of traffic," she said of the proposal.

The Greenlight Initiative, which voters approved in November 2000, requires a special election for projects that add more than 40,000 square feet of building space, 100 peak-hour car trips or 100 homes above what is allowed by the city's general plan.

The first project to fall under Greenlight--and the subject of Tuesday's election--was the $50-million expansion of the Koll Center.

Plans call for construction of a 10-story office tower at the complex at Jamboree Road and MacArthur Boulevard and replacement of a two-story garage with one that is six stories. An adjacent street-level parking lot would be ripped up and replaced after a lower level is placed under it.

A divided Newport Beach City Council approved the project in August, setting the stage for Tuesday's special election.

Supporters argued that the project would boost the city's economy without harming residents' quality of life.

They pointed out the property is located in a commercial district and that the new tower would not significantly worsen traffic congestion.

Critics, however, maintained that the office tower would aggravate already congested traffic. They also said the developer should not move forward with the project until Newport Beach completes a revision to its general plan next year.

While city officials are hopeful that voters will decide each project on its own merits, some developers expressed fear that a "no" vote would have a chilling effect on future development in the city.

For example, the family that owns the Newport Dunes resort has put the property up for sale, blaming the Greenlight Initiative for complicating their expansion plans.

Some planning experts said elections like this do not necessarily accomplish what is best for the entire community.

Others said voters are not able to easily assess large projects' numerous technical details.

"We created planners and planning departments to do this," said Scott Bollens, a professor of urban planning at UC Irvine.

The cost of Tuesday's election was paid for by the developer, which gave the city a $25,000 deposit and a letter of credit for $50,000.

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