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Lawsuit Targets 12,350-Home Irvine Project

Land use: Defend the Bay calls review of plan for El Toro property inadequate. Councilman says the organization lacks public support.

July 10, 2002|EVAN HALPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A group of environmentalists filed suit Tuesday in Superior Court to block the Irvine Co.'s plan to build a community of 35,000 residents on land around the mothballed El Toro Marine base.

In its lawsuit, Newport Beach-based Defend the Bay says the city's environmental review of the 7,743-acre project was inadequate. Irvine and the Irvine Co. are named as defendants, along with several other government agencies.

The Northern Sphere plan was unanimously approved by the City Council last month. It permits construction of 12,350 homes and more than 7 million square feet of commercial space on county land the city plans to annex.

The development would create a sub-city roughly the size of San Juan Capistrano near the Irvine Spectrum.

More than half the land would be preserved as open space.

Robert Caustin, executive director of Defend the Bay, says the project is far too dense for the busy area near the Irvine Spectrum.

"The people who approved this project are in their own little world, dancing to the tune of the Irvine Co.," he said. "This project should have been downsized. People are going to be sitting in traffic, waiting for the light to change three times before they can even get to the intersection."

Defend the Bay launched a referendum campaign last month to overturn the vote, but abandoned that effort, feeling that the city was vilifying the group as outsiders. But city officials say the failure of that campaign shows that the community supports the Northern Sphere project.

"[Defend the Bay] quickly discovered they have no popular support, so they turned to the courts," said Councilman Chris Mears.

Mears says Defend the Bay's true motive is reviving the plan to build an airport at El Toro, noting that all the projects the group fights are under the flight path of the once-proposed airport. The land would have to remain undeveloped for an airport to be viable.

Caustin says such comments are part of a city-orchestrated "smear campaign" against his organization.

Defend the Bay has sued the city once and won, over approval of a plan to convert 600 acres of strawberry and bean fields into a 10.2-million-square-foot addition to the Irvine Spectrum. A Superior Court judge ruled in January that the city's environmental review of that project did not reasonably consider alternatives to the Irvine Co.'s proposal.

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