A petition campaign to block Newport Beach from annexing the affluent community of Newport Coast failed to gather enough valid signatures to force a vote on the proposal, county elections officials said Wednesday.
The 7.6 square miles of gated neighborhoods, with more than 7,000 residents and some of the most expensive ocean-view homes in Orange County, will become part of the city of Newport Beach on Jan. 1 barring a successful legal challenge.
"I'm happy for the city, and I'm happy for Newport Coast," Newport Beach Mayor Gary B. Adams said. "As for the people in Newport Coast, especially those whose initial reaction was to oppose this or put it to a vote, the more they learn about the deal the better they're going to feel about it."
The Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission approved annexation in September, but the decision was challenged by two groups of Newport Coast homeowners who expressed reservations. Newport Coast is an unincorporated area of Orange County.
Opponents needed signatures from 25% of the registered voters in Newport Coast communities--853 residents--to place the issue on the ballot. Last week, they submitted petitions with 1,073 signatures. But the Orange County Registrar of Voters on Wednesday determined that only 658 of them were valid, said Bob Aldrich, LAFCO's project manager.
The ruling is considered preliminary until LAFCO's executive director holds a hearing Wednesday, but the campaign to place annexation on the ballot has been effectively scuttled, Aldrich said.
State lawmakers created Local Agency Formation commissions in every county, excluding San Francisco, to regulate urban growth and rule on all proposed boundary changes, including bids for annexation and municipal incorporation. Newport Coast attorney Phillip Greer, who led one of the petition drives, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. He said this week that, while he harbored many reservations about annexation, his only intent was to give Newport Coast voters the opportunity to decide their own fate.
Greer said many residents were worried that the city would take over their private neighborhood parks. Greer also questioned Newport Beach's support of the controversial proposal for an international airport at the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Base, since one proposed flight path would send planes over their neighborhoods.
Attorney Jim McGee, chairman of a local Newport Coast homeowners coalition that negotiated the annexation proposal with the city, said joining Newport Beach can only benefit the community. Local taxes will be reduced, and police, fire and other municipal services will be enhanced significantly, he said.
"I thought the people who were behind the petitions were doing a disservice to the community," McGee said. "I don't have any problem with people with a difference of opinion. My problem is with people who wait to the last minute and then try to sandbag it all."
He discounted concerns about El Toro, saying the Newport Beach City Council has already voted to oppose any flight paths that would send planes over the Newport Coast area.
The homeowners group recommended annexing to Newport Beach only after hiring a economic analyst to explore the possibility of forming an independent city. However, even with a $2.8-billion assessed property tax value and a projected population of about 12,000 residents by 2010, Newport Coast lacked the retail tax base necessary to sustain itself, McGee said.
Under the proposed annexation, Newport Beach agreed to do the following for Newport Coast:
* Pay off an estimated $18 million in special assessment debt owed by residents, saving the average homeowner about $240 a year.
* If residents agree, build a $7-million community center, which could include a gymnasium, meeting rooms and a branch library.
* Take over law-enforcement duties from the Orange County sheriff, adding a patrol beat and guaranteeing quicker response times. Newport Beach also will assume control of the Newport Coast fire station, now staffed by the Orange County Fire Authority, and add a full-time paramedic.
* Provide free trash collection and maintain all medians, parkways and landscaping in common areas outside gated communities.
"It's probably the most generous offer that any city has made to an unincorporated area in California," said David Kiff, assistant city manager for Newport Beach.