Planning Commission denies appeal, upholds approval of electric vehicle dealership on Mariners’ Mile

By SARA HALL

The Planning Commission last week unanimously denied an appeal and upheld and affirmed a decision approving an electric vehicle dealership planned for Mariners’ Mile.

Commissioners voted 4-0 (three commissioners were absent) on March 7 in support of the zoning administrator’s February 1 decision to approve a minor use permit, minor site development review, modification permit, and tentative parcel map to allow the demolition of the existing on-site structures and the construction and operation of a Genesis automobile dealership at 320, 400, 410, 500 and 600 West Coast Highway.

Staff did a good job in supporting all of the findings, said Commissioner Lee Lowrey.

It’s a good-looking project and any concerns they had were eased with the staff’s work and recommendations, commissioners agreed.

“This is a nice clean-up of the area,” said Commissioner David Salene.

He also liked the right-of-way improvements that will be made on Coast Highway.

Overall, it’s a nice project, Salene concluded.

Click on photo for a larger image

Rendering by Goree Architects/Courtesy of Gen Newport Beach/City of NB

A rendering of the Genesis electric vehicle dealership proposed for Mariners’ Mile

Plans call for the demolition of six existing commercial, retail and service use buildings, many of which are currently vacant, totaling approximately 14,500 square feet and associated site improvements. The existing buildings are one- and two-story, operate separately from one another, are situated across the site without a cohesive design, and are showing notable signs of aging.

The proposed project includes construction of a 19,044-square-foot Genesis car dealership. The company aims to be completely transitioned to electric vehicles by 2025 and has a goal to be fully zero-emission by 2030. The planned two-story, 25-foot-tall building will include a showroom with four display cars, sales office, storage area, EV repair area, employee areas, customer lounge, restrooms, a Zen Garden and a landscaped atrium.

The dealership will involve the sale and minor repairs of EVs only.

Parking will be provided via 80 surface parking spaces. Surface parking at the rear of the building will be enclosed to reduce noise from closing car doors and routine project operation and will connect to the fully enclosed EV Lab for limited vehicle service.

The project also includes improvements to the Caltrans right-of-way adjacent to the site that include realigning the curb and extending the existing lane transition area. According to the staff report, Caltrans is also planning to install bike lanes along this section of West Coast Highway in the future. Therefore, as conditioned, the project is required to dedicate 12 feet of their property along the West Coast Highway right-of-way to facilitate the proposed improvements. No additional through lanes are being created as part of this project.

The applicant requests a modification permit to allow a minor deviation from the required five-foot rear setback. Specifically, an approximately 15.5-foot-long portion of the proposed 243-foot-long building would encroach up to two inches. According to staff, the two-inch deviation to the rear setback is requested to provide a design that is more compatible with the upslope residential uses by enclosing the parking at the rear of the building and thereby reducing noise and visual impacts.

Although Salene said he’s “befuddled” at how the project can’t figure out how to get rid of two inches and not require the modification permit.

Following the ZA’s approval on February 1, resident Maryam Parman filed an appeal on February 15. She claimed that the project is not exempt from CEQA and therefore requires further environmental review. Parman also raised concerns that there is no guarantee that the applicant will only sell EV vehicles and that the project will create traffic impacts and have a significant impact to nearby sensitive receptors and properties.

Staff found the project exempt from CEQA pursuant to the sections about existing facilities, in-fill development projects, new construction or conversion of small structures and projects consistent with a community plan, general plan, or zoning. The recommendation from city staff also notes that “it has no potential to have a significant effect on the environment.”

Coast Highway, the existing right-of-way, will be improved without creating additional lanes, explained Assistant Planner Jenny Tran. This project also has no significant traffic, noise, air quality, or water quality effects, she noted. The air quality impact is significantly less for EV cars which is a design feature of the project, Tran added.

The project is also consistent with the general plan and the city’s zoning district, Tran added.

Staff also noted in the response to the appeal that a trip generation analysis reviewed by the city traffic engineer determined that the project would create a net increase of 299 daily trips, which is under the threshold for a traffic study.

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Responding to the concern about traffic impacts, Tran noted that services will be by appointment only and there will be an on-site vehicle technician to direct cars to service parking spaces. The dealership will also offer a complimentary service valet.

In the response to the appeal, staff noted that Genesis dealership will specialize in EVE vehicles. A special condition of approval also states that “any changes in operational characteristics, including changes that would add services of automobiles with internal combustion engines,” requires the applicant to submit an amendment to the various permits.

Although at the Planning Commission hearing last week, Chuck Krolikowski, a partner in the Newport Beach office of Newmeyer & Dillion and counsel for the appellant said they don’t believe the recommended exemptions to CEQA are applicable for this project, therefore additional environmental review is necessary, including an initial study, and then a decision can be made.

The purpose of CEQA is two-fold, Krolikowski noted: To identify and mitigate against any potential impacts to the environment related to a proposed project; and to actually inform the public about what the project is and what the potential cumulative impacts might be (related to past, pending and potential future projects).

Exemptions are exceptions to CEQA, Krolikowski noted, and they must be based on “substantial evidence.”

The existing facilities exemption, in this case, doesn’t match, Krolikowski argued. The applicant is proposing to demolish several older, existing buildings and construct a new facility which is planned to be notably larger. The difference isn’t negligible, which is often reasoned for this class of exemption, rather, it’s a brand-new building in a different location. This does not fit within this category, he emphasized.

“They’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole,” Krolikowski said.

Also, in-fill development projects are typically consistent with the general plan and zoning, less than five acres, and essentially have no impacts whatsoever to the environment (related to traffic, noise, air quality, and water quality), Krolikowski said.

“We don’t believe this is the case,” with this proposed project, he said.

There was no trip generation information at the time of the zoning administrator meeting, which is what the Planning Commission is meant to be reviewing as last week was a de novo hearing, Krolikowski noted. They heard that the trips were 299, but no actual study was referenced by the ZA, he said, and there was no testimony given by a traffic engineer.

“We don’t believe there was substantial evidence to support it,” Krolikowski said.

Also, the question isn’t about the number that the city sets as a threshold for the requirement for a traffic study, he commented, but about whether or not the additional trips will impact the environment.

“Will they impact the environment? That’s the ultimate question,” Krolikowski said.

They believe adding those trips and additional vehicles on the site are enough to trigger additional environmental review, he concluded.

Also, the argument that it’s “only electric vehicles” is not accurate, Krolikowski pointed out, as people visiting the dealership and employees might be driving gas-powered vehicles, which will bring the noise, emissions and other issues associated with those types of vehicles.

The city cannot retroactively mitigate a project’s impacts to the surrounding community by and through conditions of approval, Krolikowski commented.

The purpose of CEQA isn’t to deal with potential future issues through conditions, he explained, instead, it’s meant to inform the public of potential impact and determine how to deal with it now with mitigation measures under a CEQA document.

Based on research of a relevant case in which the lead agency relied on mitigation measures offered by an applicant to support an exemption and the court found that the mitigation measures must be conducted under the established CEQA procedures, Krolikowski said that the city is attempting to do the same by giving an exemption to the project and then stating that if there are impacts, they can be mitigated in the future through a condition of approval.

In his letter to the Planning Commission, Krolikowski wrote that the conditions of approval require the applicant to only service EVs at the dealership to mitigate the project’s sound impact on the neighboring community. The city is also attempting to mitigate the traffic impacts with the dedication of 12 feet adjacent to the highway and requiring the applicant to redesign and construct the curb location.

“It doesn’t make sense because if there are impacts, you shouldn’t have the exemption to begin with,” he said, “and so to mitigate impacts through conditions begs the question: ‘Why are you doing the exemption to begin with?’”

Representing the applicant, Chief Executive Officer at CAA Planning Shawna Schaffner explained that the exemptions are based on the preparation of 11 different technical studies.

“There are no mitigation measures associated with this project,” Schaffner said. “There are project design features and standard conditions of approval that the city implements for all such projects to ensure that they are compatible with the community. These are not environmentally related mitigation measures.”

Any future operator relying on the minor use permit would be bound by the same conditions applied to this project, she pointed out.

Schaffner also noted that this section of Coast Highway has an average of 45,000 daily trips, while this project will add fewer than 300 average daily trips, which is a “very small, incremental increase.”

Also, traffic flow should improve on the roadway in front of the property due to the dedication of the 12-foot frontage and the realignment of the curb, Schaffner added.

The majority of the project’s operations have been designed to occur within the enclosed spaces of the Genesis facility to be compatible with the upslope neighbors, Schaffner said. They are also intended to ensure compatibility with the community through high-quality design, landscaping and lighting, she added.

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Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.


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