Irvine City Council Votes to Sue County Over Big Commercial Development Near Great Park

The Irvine City Council unanimously voted Tuesday night to sue the County of Orange over a huge development plan on 108 acres south of the Great Park, hours after the Board of Supervisors moved forward with the project.

“They’re going with an ill-conceived project and we’re not going to let it go without a challenge because it’s not consistent with what we want to do,” Mayor Don Wagner said in a Tuesday night phone interview. “We got lots of problems.”

The massive project would create up to one million square feet of office space, 2,100 homes, 200,000 square feet of retail space, and a 242-room hotel.

Councilman Jeff Lalloway said the County is violating an agreement created in 2003 when it transferred the Great Park land to Irvine, but kept the 108 acres south of the park. He said any housing, office or retail development was never in the agreement.

“It’s for government and institutional type uses. That’s what the annexation (agreement) allows for specifically. And they’re certainly stretching the meaning of ‘government uses’ by building a hotel and residential apartments and commercial development, too,” said Lalloway in a Tuesday night phone interview.

Wagner said the plans undermine the city’s efforts to control traffic and threatens development in the Great Park because the project will produce even more traffic in the city.

It’s going to delay projects in the area, “including the Cultural Terrace (in the Great Park). The scope of the project that they are talking about far exceeds anything that can reasonably go on that land, far exceeds anything that can reasonably be accommodated on that land. It jeopardizes our control of traffic … it’s just a bad idea,” Wagner said.

Supervisors voted 4-1 Tuesday to approve the project’s environmental impact report and authorize leasing the land for the development. Supervisor Todd Spitzer opposed the project.

In voting against it, Spitzer said he believed the County was violating state law, would get sued, and likely lose – with taxpayers having to pay the legal bills of both the county and those who sue.

Typically land developments have to be approved by the city they’re in — Irvine, in this case — but the County says it’s exempt under a doctrine called “sovereign immunity,” in which counties don’t need city permission to change the use of county land.

But Spitzer cited a 1975 appeals court ruling that agencies can lose their immunity if the development is for commercial purposes — and thus be subject to the local zoning authority of the city, which in this case is a city that intensely opposes the proposed project.

A county lawyer, Thomas “Matt” Miller, replied that Irvine had agreed to give up zoning authority over the land in the 2003 contract with the county, called a “pre-annexation agreement.” The agreement specifies the county can use the land as it sees fit, Miller said.

But Spitzer said that argument would fall flat in court because commercial development wasn’t included in the list of county land uses envisioned in the agreement.

“No rational judge would think that private development through a private entity was contemplated” in the 2003 agreement, Spitzer said.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson disagreed, saying the agreement’s list of uses says the County is not limited to those uses. He said Spitzer had a “fantasy that the uses were limited to municipal uses.”

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, meanwhile, said the project will bring a revenue stream to the county that will enhance its ability to provide public services.

“This is just the maximum development,” Bartlett said of what was studied in the environmental report. “It could still be scaled down and changed” in the future.

However, Irvine Councilwoman Christina Shea said, in a Thursday night phone interview, the County shouldn’t be in the development business.

“In our opinion the County of Orange should not be in the business of retail and residential and building a very dense and very aggressive complex over there near the Great Park,” Shea said. “They should be in the business of taking care of the homeless, which is a very high priority in the county … those four supervisors have stepped way over the line on this.”

Leading up to the County’s decision, several city governments and nonprofit groups sent letters opposing the county’s environmental analysis for the project, with several alleging the county underestimated the number of car trips — and thus traffic congestion — the project would create.

Opposing the environmental analysis in letters were the city of Irvine; the Great Park developer FivePoint Communities; the Orange County Transportation Authority; Caltrans; city of Laguna Beach; Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks; the union Unite Here Local 11; the conservation advocacy group Laguna Greenbelt; the Orange County Food Access Coalition; and Second Harvest Food Bank, whose attorney wrote a letter alleging the environmental report violates several state laws related to planning, zoning and environmental impacts.

Both Lalloway and Shea said some of the groups who sent letters will file similar lawsuits against the County.

“It’s our belief there will be others to sue. Possibly the developers — Fivepoint and the Irvine Company — Second harvest food bank, OCTA, Laguna Beach … there’s a number of entities involved who may or may not bring lawsuits,” Lalloway said.

Wagner said the city had been talking with the County about their concerns.

“It’s very disappointing, very unfortunate they would do this … We were having talks with the County. I thought we were on the right track,” Wagner said.

Meanwhile, Shea said the city is going to fight the plans with everything its got.

“We’re going to do everything we can to defend our city, to defend from the huge increase of traffic they’re going to bring to the city. All five of us are on board, all in agreement that this is not a good plan … if it takes us two to three years, we’re going to spend the money to do it.”

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected]

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at [email protected]