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Sun, Sand and Sizzling O.C. Land Dispute

Should a coveted spot on the Balboa Peninsula become a swank hotel or park? It's a ballot issue.

August 30, 2004|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

Resort designer Stephen Sutherland has a vision for 8 acres of waterfront land on the Balboa Peninsula: a 110-room luxury hotel where the well-heeled can stay for $400 a night on the edge of Newport Harbor.

Many longtime Balboa residents see a different picture. They note that the land, on the harbor side of the peninsula, is the last significant piece of harbor property the city owns and was always supposed to become a public park, as stated in the city general plan.

In 2001, after pondering what to do with the land once the leases expire on a small mobile home park there, city officials agreed on paper, subject to later approvals, with Sutherland's proposal for a Marinapark resort. Residents said they were stunned that the city would endorse a plan that might forever alter the charm of a onetime seafaring village that has changed little over the decades.

With the agreement being only preliminary and opponents having spoken out, the proposal lay under the radar but is heating up again. The City Council approved an environmental impact report on the plan after the Planning Commission did so in July.

With the proposal making headway, a fierce battle erupted in old Balboa over what would benefit the city most: an exclusive resort that some say would add about $2 million a year in revenue to the city or, as one competing proposal has it, a park and aquatic center with a boat ramp, small-boat marina, nautical museum and place to store kayaks and canoes.

"There's precious little public access to the bay anymore because of the kind of development that has taken place," said Tom Billings, a mortgage broker and spokesman for Protect Our Parks, a group opposed to the hotel plan.

The agreement between Sutherland and the city eventually drew so much criticism from residents and activists that the City Council agreed in the summer to let voters decide the property's fate in the November election. Measure L would change the general plan to allow the resort.

Besides the mobile home park, the land is occupied by a Girl Scout facility and an American Legion post. The American Legion facilities, once targeted for tear-down under the resort plan, will be left alone. The current Girl Scout center would be replaced with a new building.

"A nice hotel on the bay is something we already have enough of," said Joe O'Hora, a 33-year neighborhood resident. He named the exclusive Balboa Bay Club, on the other side of Newport Harbor, and, on the peninsula side, the Doryman Hotel and the Little Inn on the Bay.

The Marinapark resort would include plenty of public access to the beach, Sutherland promised. He also pledged to contribute about $500,000 to the American Legion for improvements to its building.

Councilman John Heffernan, who opposes the hotel, said the Balboa Bay Club resort had also promised to provide easy public access to the beach when it won permission to upgrade its facilities.

"But it's a very imposing structure, and therefore the public is not benefiting from a public property. It might as well be private property," he said. "How is this going to be different?"

The neighborhood where the resort is proposed is a remnant of old Balboa, a working-class part of town along Balboa Boulevard where people once made their living from fishing or operating boatyards and nautical supply stores.

"There was always a feeling of freedom, plenty of public access to the bay," said Billings of Protect Our Parks.

Nearby are two churches, a preschool, plus a grade school that looks out on the ocean. The Girl Scout facility was the group's original headquarters in Orange County.

The offer to build a new facility for Troop 2700 did not at all impress Markie Ramage, 10, or Kyla Kerr, 9.

"I like my Girl Scout house," Markie said.

Recalling water balloon fights, sleepovers and evenings around the fire pit, they said the old building has sentimental value that can't be replaced. "They don't make houses like that anymore," Kyla said.

But some city officials say the old neighborhood could use the kind of economic and image boost the resort would provide.

"If it goes through the way it's expected to, it will be a five-star, very elegant facility, which is something the peninsula could use," said Councilman Steve Bromberg, an attorney.

Also, a boat ramp would "create more traffic and more problems than the area can handle, " he said.

Yet Bromberg said he plans to remain neutral in the campaign. "A 110-room hotel does not have horns, a tail and pitchfork," he said. "At the same time, I have a strong respect for the people who want to keep that land open."

As for the revenue boost, opponents say the city doesn't need one.

"We're not a poor city," said Dolores Otting, a longtime resident now running for City Council. "We're one of the richest cities in the country. If we need the money in 10 years, why not sell it then?"

Hotel opponent O'Hora warned that turning the few remaining acres suitable for a waterfront park into a pricey resort is "shortsighted."

"I would bet that the people who vote for this aren't going to realize what they've lost until they've lost it," he said.

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