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Coastal Commission approves Sunset Ridge Park

Part of getting the OK for the 14-acre sports park in West Newport was presenting a new plan to restore California gnatcatcher habitat.

August 09, 2012|By Mike Reicher

After more than 20 years of planning, the city of Newport Beach on Thursday received the California Coastal Commission's approval for Sunset Ridge Park.

City leaders rejoiced that their design changes finally swayed enough commissioners, who voted 8 to 4 during their third hearing on the matter.

The 14-acre sports park at Superior Avenue and West Coast Highway will add more fields for youth and other teams, which often have to travel across town for play.

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Newport's historical west side wasn't developed with as much attention to recreation as modern master-planned communities, and the City Council has pushed park development plans.

"I never thought it would take this long, but I'm glad I'm here to see it happen," said Councilman Steve Rosansky, who represents the area and said building this park was his highest goal, although he likely will not see it finished before his term ends in November.

Rosansky and the city's top administrators traveled to Santa Cruz for the hearing, where they presented a new plan to restore California gnatcatcher habitat elsewhere in the city. It was a response to concerns that the park would destroy vegetation, which, if allowed to grow unchecked, could become foraging and nesting grounds for the protected birds.

Commission staff members recommended denying the project because the city mows plants on about three acres of the site, which contains disturbed encelia scrub, a known type of gnatcatcher habitat. Because the city had not obtained a permit for the brush clearance, the mowing was illegal, commission staff said.

But city officials maintained that the previous owner, the California Department of Transportation, cleared the site before the Coastal Act required such permits, and the brush clearance was essentially grandfathered.

Also, Fire Chief Scott Poster testified that the mowing was necessary to protect the adjacent Newport Crest condominiums and Hoag Hospital from fire and smoke.

Essentially, the commissioners who voted in favor of the project agreed that the land did not meet the threshold for environmentally sensitive habitat, which the Coastal Act requires they protect. They cited the long-term brush clearance and the lack of evidence that gnatcatchers forage or nest there. Some were concerned of setting a precedent in which potential habitat could be protected.

A few commissioners applauded the city's efforts to restore habitat elsewhere.

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