Stealth Wealth

Developer Don Koll is bankrolling a Newport Beach 'environmental' campaign

Donald Milton Koll is an extremely wealthy, 67-year-old developer who lives in a $2 million Balboa Island home. His nearly 50 development projects nationwide are valued at $1 billion. He has spent the past decade trying to plant more than a thousand homes atop the Bolsa Chica Mesa in Huntington Beach. And now he wants to build a 250,000-square-foot, 10-story office complex and accompanying parking garages on the corner of Jamboree and MacArthur boulevards.

On Nov. 20, that proposed office complex will be the subject of Measure G, the first up-or-down popular vote on a development project mandated as part of Newport Beach's Greenlight law. You'd think a guy like Koll would be terrified of a vote that will give ordinary citizens the right to pass judgment on his project.

But no. Instead, Koll has grabbed the Greenlight banner for himself. He set up a new campaign committee, the "Greenlight Implementation Committee," and promptly began trying to convince voters that his project—which would result in 2,700 daily car trips—is what Greenlight is all about.

"Last November, the citizens of Newport Beach spoke and City Hall listened!" reads the official ballot statement from Koll's "committee." "The development project contemplated by Measure G meets the guidelines, spirit and intent of the Greenlight Initiative."

Not surprisingly, Koll's group lacks the traditional grassroots characteristics that usually accompany such efforts. The Greenlight Implementation Committee's address is the same as Newport Beach-based Hart & Associates, the powerful pro-development consulting firm. The official campaign-finance statements covering activity from July to November list just one contributor: Donald Koll's Koll Center, which gave $60,000 to the committee on Sept. 12. The same form shows that $59,000 of that money went to Hart & Associates. Koll officials have also said they are prepared to spend $165,000 in the election.

Yet Koll's official ballot statement suggests that his committee is a grassroots citizens' group pushing for the office complex.

"We are all concerned about the quality of life in Newport Beach, and that is why we overwhelmingly passed the Greenlight Initiative," reads the Koll statement. "Our intent was to send a message that a more rational approach was needed in the future development of our city. This project is a perfect example of how that message was heard and Greenlight is working for all of Newport Beach."

Koll even listed four names as signatories, presumably the committee's brain trust:

•Paul Salata. "Mr. Irrelevant," the 74-year-old Newport resident whose main claim to fame is "Irrelevant Week," Newport's annual party for the last player picked in the NFL draft. No known connection to the Greenlight Initiative.

•Elizabeth Hart. The wife of Scott Hart, Koll's chief campaign consultant.

•Tony Sansone. A wealthy Newport resident who has played no role in either the original fight for Greenlight or Newport politics.

•Barbara Glabman. A Newport society maven. Frequently mentioned in Los Angeles Times reporter Ann Conway's society columns. Has attended many charity galas with Koll and his wife.

"None of those four have ever had anything to do with Greenlight," said Phil Arst, one of the Greenlight founding activists and treasurer of the current Greenlight campaign. "The only thing we can figure is that two of the names are similar to past Newport Beach mayors. It's all deceptive. They even have yard signs that say 'Support Greenlight.'"

The reason for the deception is obvious: Koll's Jamboree project exemplifies the necessity of the Greenlight law. According to the project's Environmental Impact Report (EIR), the complex will jam five city intersections and damage air quality—what the EIR calls "significant unavoidable air-quality impacts."

Koll's developer agreement with the city is also laughable. Koll will give $2 million to the city for traffic mitigation, but project studies indicate the city may have to pay 10 times that amount for a massive overpass at the MacArthur/Jamboree intersection. Koll also says it will contribute $60,000 to the construction of a new fire station; a new station would cost $2 million.

Arrayed against Koll are Arst and the real Greenlight activists. Their latest campaign statements show nearly $11,000 in the bank, with $25,000 in contributions coming from more than a hundred mostly retired Newport Beach residents. Many of the contributions are in the $100 range.

The Greenlight crew isn't bothered by the fact that Koll has pledged many times that amount for the fight. During the original Greenlight campaign in 2000, activists spent slightly more than $80,000, again raised entirely from Newport residents, against a developer-backed campaign of more than $700,000. An astonishing $427,000 of that money came from the Irvine Co. alone.

"We're for responsible growth," said Arst. "We're finding a tremendous amount of support out there, but also a lot of confusion. We just want to look at the project on its merits."

 
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