Whiting: Development battles, rising ocean roil Newport Beach



Some regard Newport Beach as a vapid enclave for the wealthy, a world of $300,000 Ferraris, tony addresses and oh-so trendy shops at Fashion Island.

But there is more to this beach city than its status seekers. In many ways, Newport Beach is surprisingly normal both for its successes and its struggles. Still, many of those issues are larger than what most cities ever face.

Don’t forget it was Newport Beach that joined the unsuccessful attempt 15 years ago to get a commercial airport built at the former El Toro Marine base to replace John Wayne Airport.

This is a city where the average income is in the six figures and whose leaders are well-equipped to compete for tourist dollars, cope with aging infrastructure and grapple with heated fights over development.

The new City Hall and Civic Center turned into an economic hand-grenade after construction costs soared to more than $150 million. That controversy was a skirmish compared with the issues surrounding the 401-acre beachfront development known as Banning Ranch.

The biggest threat to Newport Beach is nothing less than climate change. City engineers warn that rising oceans could flood large areas of seafront property. The looming question is who pays?


Diane Dixon permanently moved to Newport Beach about three years ago from Pasadena and immediately jumped into politics. After a short stint on the City Council, the USC grad became mayor and promised to reduce Newport’s long-term debt.

She points to her background for being able to make that promise. Before briefly working for the Irvine Co., she served as senior vice president for corporate affairs and communications at Avery Dennison Corp., a publicly traded Fortune 500 company.

For too long, Dixon says, the city postponed certain projects. She notes the need for half-century-old private docks to be rebuilt, harbor dredging and mitigating rampant eelgrass. “It’s part of the circle of life to replenish public infrastructure.”

Still, Dixon has concerns. “Our unfunded pension liability,” she says, “keeps me up at night.” She says CalPERS keeps moving the goalpost and estimates the city’s liability at $250 million.

A review of city projects finds deteriorated and sometimes broken cast iron water mains in Corona del Mar (updates will be made this summer); an outdated 60-year-old fire station (to be rebuilt by mid-2017); the bridge that connects Big Balboa Island with Little Balboa Island declared “functionally obsolete” by Caltrans (a new bridge is scheduled to be complete by the end of this year).

But the need for beefed up seawalls dwarfs those projects. Dixon estimates the cost to replace or repair seawalls at $100 million.

A few years ago, I talked with Newport Beach Assistant City Engineer Robert Stein. He joked that in 90 years there’s a good chance residents on Balboa Island during high tides “will get in kayaks and go downtown to get supplies.”

Stein made the comment lightly. But his prediction about rising sea levels was serious.

Today, city records describe the problem of 75- to 85-year-old seawalls in more genteel terms. But their warnings are even more dire: “There are a few segments around Balboa Island that are not quite high enough should we experience extremely high tides and waves.”

The report goes on to note that six years ago, seawater flowed over seawalls during a moderate storm surge at high tide. Three years later, ocean water touched the top of seawalls during a king tide with no wind or waves.

The city report concludes, “Should there be further rise in sea level, longer segments of the existing seawall around Balboa Island could be subjected to this overtopping.”

Design options and style concepts are scheduled to be posted online this month.

“We are doing today,” Dixon says of the seawalls, “what we should have done 40 years ago.”


Numerous development projects dot the city. They range from a seven-story, 49-unit collection of condos with subterranean parking near Fashion Island to a luxury, 130-room hotel on 4.25 acres in Lido Village.

But the whale is Banning Ranch, a massive swath of coastal bluffs, wetlands, abandoned oil wells and land east of the Santa Ana River and north of Pacific Coast Highway.

For years, developers and environmentalists fought over its future.

Finally, it looked like the area would be open for both development and public use.

Three years ago, the Newport Beach City Council approved building 1,375 homes and 75,000 square feet of retail on 95 acres. That would have left some 300 acres of open space.

Still, environmentalists went to war.

The Banning Ranch Conservancy rallied its troops to make the entire ranch a nature preserve. The Save Newport Banning Ranch crowd followed suit.

“Banning Ranch is the largest parcel of unprotected coastal open space and wetland property remaining in Orange County,” Save Newport Banning Ranch stated, “and can provide public access to many outdoor recreational activities such as hiking and biking.”

Last fall, the California Coastal Commission basically agreed with the protesters and declared the land important to “sensitive coastal species.” One of those species is the California gnatcatcher, a little bird that has been the bane of developers for decades.

Developers caved, downgrading their plans to what many people would consider more than a reasonable compromise. The latest proposal is for 895 residential units on 53 acres, a 75-room boutique hotel and 45,000 square feet of retail space. That leaves 323 acres of open space.

The next Coastal Commission meeting on the matter is slated for May. Already, the Banning Ranch Conservancy is gearing up. The group’s rallying cry: “Let’s fight for every cubic inch of Banning Ranch that we can save in May!”

Perhaps they forgot the entire area is private land.

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