A 15-story office building and 15-story hotel will be built across the street from John Wayne Airport after the Irvine City Council sided with the Federal Aviation Administration and overrode local and state decisions that had labeled the project a potential air travel hazard.

The council voted 3-1 to overrule a decision by the Airport Land Use Commission (ALUC) that the project poses a safety threat, a finding that was seconded by the California Department of Transportation. Mayor Pro Tem Lynn Schott voted against it during the Nov. 28 council meeting and Councilman Jeff Lalloway was absent.

“I spoke at great length with the chairman of ALUC months ago back when this item came before us … to try to get comfortable with the project. And I still can’t get comfortable,” Schott said at the Council meeting.

The airport commission, during its April 20 meeting, 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”, the office building is 301 AMSL and the hotel is 253 above mean sea level.  The FAA had ruled the project was an “obstruction,” but not a “hazard.”

In July, the City Council decided to hire an aviation consultant — at the expense of the developer — to assess the project.

Nick Johnson, CEO of Johnson Aviation, told the Council the FAA has the final word on safety decisions in airspace.

“Even the state defers to the FAA, ultimately, for these kinds of decisions,” Johnson said.

The FAA said the project was not a hazard to airspace in a March 10 letter to the developer.

Yet CalTrans concurred with the airport commission’s determination.

“The Division agrees with both the ALUC and JWA (John Wayne Airport) … that although the FAA has concluded the proposed project is an obstruction but not a hazard to air navigation, there are still significant risks associated with the proposed heights of the office building and hotel,” reads a June 15 letter from CalTrans sent to the city.

A flight track and altitude analysis of March 28 air traffic performed by the airport commission found that four aircraft came in below 500 feet AMSL near the project site, with a helicopter coming in at 317 feet above mean sea level.

The commission did another analysis of April 1 flights and found six flights came in below 500 feet above mean sea level near the project site. An unknown type of aircraft came in at 305 feet AMSL that day.

Mayor Don Wagner said the Council has heard from the experts and he felt comfortable moving forward with the project.

“We had the FAA … the best experts in the country weighing in. We’ve got our own independent staff who said ‘Do this, the FAA is right.’ We went through an extra layer and got Johnson Aviation who is renowned across the country,” Wagner said. “The project is safe, the project is good for Irvine. In fact the project will probably alleviate traffic,” because people can land and use the hotel across the street, instead of having to drive somewhere else.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s report found issues in the commission’s flight track analyses. 

“The flight track information provided … was inadequate to correlate each flight track near the project site to the list of aircraft identifiers associated with these flight tracks. Fixed-wing aircraft operating within the JWA airport traffic pattern airspace would not track over the project site without being seriously off course from normal traffic pattern ground tracks,” reads the report.

Schott said she couldn’t justify the potential risks involved with the project.

“I’m trying to justify business versus the concerns of the community. Does the economic benefit, the social benefit, the community benefit — does it all outweigh the safety concerns? The concerns of the traffic that we all hear from the community?” Schott asked. “The benefit doesn’t outweigh the costs.”

Councilwoman Christina Shea said she was disappointed Lalloway wasn’t at the meeting. It was Lalloway who proposed hiring a consultant in July to help the Council make its decision.

“[Lalloway] said that he needed more information and so we’ve spent the last three to four months getting an independent review of this project, which was paid for by the applicant,” Shea said. “I’m just a little bit disappointed our council member that put us through these hoops isn’t here tonight.”

A two-thirds vote is required to overturn the commission’s decision, according to the State public utilities code that also establishes airport commissions. That meant if Lalloway was there, the Council would have needed four out of five votes to overturn the decision.

Lalloway said he missed the Nov. 28 meeting because his wife was injured after being rear ended on the 22 freeway that day.

The two 15-story buildings will be built on a seven-acre site on MacArthur Boulevard between Douglas and Campus Drive and will include a parking structure with 2,089 parking spaces.

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, according to the staff report.

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, the staff report and planning commission documents said.

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. Additionally, the project is expected to generate $100,000 a year in sales tax for the city.

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