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Newport's application for new park postponed

Question remains of whether Sunset Ridge Park plans for sports field can accommodate the California gnatcatcher, a threatened species.

April 12, 2012|By Jon Cassidy, Special to the Daily Pilot
  • An empty grassy area, the scene for a potential public park, overlooking Superior Avenue and West Coast Highway in Newport Beach on Thursday.
An empty grassy area, the scene for a potential public… (KEVIN CHANG, Daily…)

The California Coastal Commission's view of itself can be romantic.

When its longtime executive director, Peter Douglas, died earlier this month, a staff tribute turned to "The Lord of the Rings" for a comparison: "For more than 40 years, he has been Gandalf to the developers' balrog, standing resolute on tenuous footing while declaring, 'You. Shall. Not. Pass.'"

The tenuousness of the commission's footing may be a matter of debate, but its denials are rarely so declamatory, couched instead in the language of bureaucracy: "Gnatcatcher. Observances. In. The. Southeast. Polygon."

The city of Newport Beach has plans to build Sunset Ridge Park on the hillside above West Coast Highway and Superior Avenue, and was due to present those plans to the commission again Thursday. The application, though, was postponed once again, with city spokeswoman Tara Finnigan saying that the commission's heavy workload was a factor.

The question is whether the city's plans for baseball and soccer fields, gardens and bathrooms sufficiently accommodate the California gnatcatcher, a tiny blue-gray bird that hops and flits through nearby sagebrush while eating bugs.

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The bird has been designated a threatened species, so the commission has the job of protecting its habitat: several stands of sagebrush in the area. Commission staff has also taken on the job of protecting the gnatcatcher's potential but nonexistent habitat.

Planners can design around the sagebrush, but the potential habitat could cover much of the 13.7-acre parcel, which would mean changing or scrapping plans for the park.

The wider habitat doesn't exist currently because the site gets mowed once or twice a year due to being fire hazard. A biologist for the commission determined that if the mowing didn't take place, lots of sunflowers would grow there, which "would provide important natural resources and provide necessary ecological services for the California gnatcatcher."

The commission staff argues that because the city has no Coastal Development Permit for the site, for the mowing to be legal, it would have to predate the 1972 initiative that created the commission.

"If the periodic mowing is legal, this area would not be [protected]," a commission report states. "However, if the mowing is not legal, the area would be [protected]."

The city says that the mowing has been taking place since the 1960s, and that it's permissible regardless.

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