Irvine Again Puts Off Decision on Overturning Airport Commission Rejection of Hotel and Office Project

County of Orange

A private business jet at John Wayne Airport.

Developer Greater Far East again will have to wait to see if the Irvine City Council is willing to overturn an airport commission’s decision that denied the developer’s hotel and office building project near John Wayne Airport due to safety hazards.

In a unanimous vote Tuesday, the council delayed the vote a second time, but, unlike two weeks ago, they’re now seeking an independent aviation expert to help them decide how they’ll vote because different government bodies — local, state and federal — have two conflicting positions on the project.

“I need to put my trust in someone to help me resolve that conflict,” said Councilman Jeff Lalloway, who made the motion to hire a consultant and bring the issue back for a vote Sept 12. “When public safety is involved, this is way too important of an issue just to dismiss.”

The Federal Aviation Administration ruled the project is an obstruction, but not a hazard, while the John Wayne Airport Land Use Commission and the California Department of Transportation have both determined the project is a safety hazard.

Registered lobbyist for Greater Far East, Tim Strader Jr., said the developer is looking to bring onboard an aviation expert with 37 years of aeronautical experience, but the prospective expert was on vacation this week. Strader said the developer was fine with having the decision pushed back so they could bring in an expert analysis.

However, resident Joe Daichendt, who urged the council to let stand the commission’s denial of the project and who said he has over 2,000 hours of flying experience, opposed relying on the developer’s expert.

“I appreciate that the developer is willing to bring in an expert, a consultant — a hired gun — to provide an opinion that it’s not an issue, but that’s a paid-for opinion,” Daichendt said during public comment.

Lalloway echoed Daichendt’s concerns during council deliberations and said he is “hesitant” about using a developer-provided expert “because they are paid for and are on (Greater Far East’s) side.”

At its April 20 meeting, the airport commission said it’s too dangerous to have any building near John Wayne Airport exceed 206 feet above mean sea level (AMSL). In developer Greater Far East’s proposal dubbed “The Landmark Project”, the office building is 301 AMSL and the hotel is 253 AMSL.

There are various buildings near the proposed project zone that are above the commission’s threshold, according to the city staff report, which also recommends the council overturn the airport commission’s decision.

“I live hundreds of feet from the project site,” Daichendt said, stressing the importance of protected airspace. “Every approach path that comes into John Wayne is carefully scrutinized, as with all airports across the country.”

Mayor Pro Tem Lynn Schott said she would like more information to help her vote.

“I still don’t have the level of comfort that I need to approve this item tonight,” Schott said. “I think that we shouldn’t be in a hurry when it comes to public safety.”

Meanwhile, Councilwoman Christina Shea said while she respects safety, she doesn’t want to keep delaying.

“I’m always for safety,” Shea said. “I just don’t want to string this out for months and months.”

The council will need four out of five votes to overturn the commission’s decision, according to the State public utilities code that also establishes airport commissions.

Lalloway offered Tuesday’s motion to bring onboard an independent consultant to help make the council make its decision at its Sept. 12 meeting.

The Landmark Project could bolster revenues for Irvine and help make up for the expected $1.3 million sales tax revenue loss in the 2017-2018 budget.

The 386 room hotel, which will also have ground-level shops and restaurants is expected to garner about $632,000 in hotel tax in the first year of operation. After that, it could generate up to $1.3 million a year, according to the staff report. Also, after the both buildings are fully developed, they are expected to produce $270,000 annually in property taxes.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org.