Development projects, city debt and the future of Mariners’ Mile were among topics discussed Wednesday night during Speak Up Newport’s City Council candidate forum at the Newport Beach Civic Center.
About 100 people attended the event, moderated by Michele Gile, the Orange County reporter for KCBS-TV/2 and KCAL-TV/9.
Newport voters will decide Nov. 8 who should fill three available seats on the City Council.
Harbor Commissioner Brad Avery and law student Shelley Henderson are running for the District 2 seat, which represents Newport Heights and Newport Crest. The district’s current council member, Tony Petros, is not running for re-election. Henderson did not attend the forum.
Businessman and community activist Mike Glenn, businessman Lee Lowrey and retired educator Jeff Herdman are vying for the District 5 seat, which represents Balboa Island, Harbor Island, the Fashion Island area and a portion of Big Canyon. Councilman Ed Selich, who currently represents District 5, is termed out this year.
Attorney and city Finance Committee member Will O’Neill, attorney Phil Greer and former Planning Commissioner Fred Ameri are running for the District 7 seat, which represents Newport Coast and Newport Ridge. Councilman Keith Curry, who currently represents the area, also is termed out this year.
All of the candidates spoke in favor of Banning Ranch LLC’s proposal to build 895 homes, a 75-room hotel, a 20-bed hostel and 45,100 square feet of retail space on 62 acres of coastal land.
The California Coastal Commission denied the project this month, citing a lack of cohesion between the developer and commission staff members who recommended the project be reduced to about one-third of the proposed size.
Avery said he would prefer the development to be about half the size.
Ameri, who in previous forums said he believed the development was too large but that the property owner has the right to build something on the land, said Wednesday that he believes it’s a good project that would clean up an old oil field.
The candidates also weighed in on the city’s efforts to rejuvenate Mariners’ Mile, a stretch of West Coast Highway between Newport Boulevard and Dover Drive.
In 2011, the council identified Mariners’ Mile as one of six zones needing revitalization. Work in other areas, including Corona del Mar, Balboa and Lido villages, West Newport and Santa Ana Heights, has been underway for years.
However, a decision on how best to use the narrow Mariners’ stretch, which is hemmed in by bluffs on one side and Newport Harbor on the other, has long eluded city leaders.
City Council hopefuls spoke about improving the area’s walkability through sidewalk expansions and maintaining the current traffic-lane count.
Greer said the city should use recent projects in Corona del Mar, such as a sidewalk expansion along East Coast Highway, as a template for how to make Mariners’ Mile more pedestrian-friendly.
Avery said he also supports making the area safer for pedestrians. “The traffic is just violent,” Avery said. “Cars are going so fast, it’s uncomfortable to walk it right now.”
Glenn said that while landowners along Mariners’ Mile likely would have most of the say in how the area develops, he indicated he would support a boardwalk and shuttle service there.
Lowrey also supported building a boardwalk.
O’Neill said he’d like to see a more open, walkable harbor area but is relying on residents to share their visions.
Herdman said he wants the area to be a nautical village with open harbor views.
Ameri said the city should maintain the same number of traffic lanes on the highway and perhaps remove street parking to be able to widen sidewalks.
The candidates also were asked about a recent proposal supported by Mayor Pro Tem Kevin Muldoon and Councilman Scott Peotter to place a charter amendment on the local ballot asking voters whether they want to require public approval before the city can use a certificate of participation or a lease revenue bond greater than $10 million.
A certificate of participation, a financial instrument for issuing bonds to fund capital improvements, was used in funding part of the Civic Center development project.
Lease revenue bonds are secured by lease payments made by the party, often a municipality, leasing the facilities that were paid for by the bond. Newport does not have any lease revenue bonds.
In August, the City Council decided to hold off on the ballot measure proposal and sent it to the Finance Committee for consideration.
Avery, Lowrey, Greer and Glenn indicated support for giving voters a say on city debt. Ameri said he agrees with it “in concept.”
“It’s the government. They are always going to want to get into your pocket,” Glenn said. “We need to protect ourselves through a voting mechanism. We never know who’s going to be on the City Council in five, 10, 20 years. We need to be able to have that power ourselves as citizens.”
O’Neill said he’s looking forward to discussing the proposal at the Finance Committee but that it isn’t ready for the November ballot.
Herdman said he strongly opposes the measure because it could limit the city’s ability to fund important projects, especially during an emergency.
“As a city councilman, I would not want to have my hands tied,” he said.
Voters in November will consider a different ballot measure spearheaded by Curry that asks whether a super-majority vote of the council should be required to approve tax increases.