A long-anticipated vote by the California Coastal Commission on Wednesday will decide more than the fate of a massive development proposed for the last big piece of private open land on the Southland coast.
It will signal the direction of a commission that has been mired in controversy over the dismissal of its executive director and a perceived pro-development tilt.
The Newport Banning Ranch proposal, which calls for the construction of nearly 900 homes, a resort hotel and shops on an Orange County oil field overlooking the Pacific Ocean, has heightened tensions between the politically appointed commissioners and their expert staffers, who have insisted — to the obvious annoyance of some on the panel — that the development is too big and too environmentally harmful.
The project has also highlighted commissioners' nonchalant approach to Coastal Act requirements that they disclose, within seven days, any contacts with developers, activists or others interested in an application they are considering.
Chairman Steve Kinsey will have to sit out the vote because he twice failed to promptly report private meetings with Banning Ranch developers, including a multi-hour tour of the project site last December.
Commissioner Mark Vargas said Friday that he is consulting legal counsel about whether he, too, should recuse himself because he didn't report until Aug. 22 a December meeting that he and several other commissioners had with project opponents.
"I ... will announce my decision on the date of the hearing," Vargas stated in an email when The Times questioned him about the eight-month delay.
Disclosure violations carry civil fines of up to $7,500. And under the Coastal Act, commissioners who fail to report a so-called ex parte communication on time are not supposed to vote on the matter or try to influence the commission's decision.
In its latest report on Banning Ranch, the commission staff recommended approval of a substantially scaled-back version of the project to protect what staff scientists have called one of the last relatively intact wetland-bluff ecosystems remaining on Southern California's congested coastline.
The staff's proposal for a more modest development — which commissioners can adopt or ignore — includes two northern clusters of housing consisting of 411 condominiums and 82 single-family homes.
A proposed hotel, a road from Pacific Coast Highway and about 400 residences in the central and southern portions of the tract would be eliminated.
The development team, which includes the oil company that has co-owned the property for nearly two decades, condemned the staff recommendation as a "de facto denial of the project that will result in the oilfield remaining in place for decades to come."
The developers have promoted the project as a way to clean up and open to the public a 401-acre industrial site blighted by hundreds of abandoned wells, rusting equipment and contaminated soil.
Under the current Banning Ranch proposal, oil production would be consolidated at two small locations and 329 acres — much of it wetlands that can't be developed — would be set aside as a nature preserve managed by the Newport Banning Land Trust.
That nonprofit, created by the developers in 2012, "will steward and conserve the natural land and native species while providing the public an opportunity to enjoy and learn about natural Orange County," according to the trust's website.
But The Times' examination of the website suggests that board members have no background in the conservation field.
The trust chairman is George Basye, the vice president of Aera Energy, the oil company that owns 50% of the tract and is one of three development partners. Though Aera has not been involved in oil production at the site, as a longtime landowner it has been legally liable for a number of environmental violations at Banning Ranch, including the dumping of oil waste and the destruction of wetlands and wildlife habitat.
The trust's president is Kate Klimow, the assistant vice chancellor of community and government relations at UC Irvine. Previously she worked in community relations for an engineering firm, in the development division of Walt Disney Imagineering and in public affairs for KB Home, one of the nation's largest home builders.
The trust's treasurer is Neil Brandom, a managing principal of Brooks Street, a real estate company that is partnering with Aera on the Banning Ranch project.
The trust secretary is Philip Bettencourt, a real estate planner and public affairs consultant whose clients include Newport Banning Ranch, according to his website. Board member Stephanie Marguia is dean of admissions at Cerritos College.
Some members of the trust's advisory board have solid environmental credentials, including Graham Chisholm, a former executive director of Audubon California.
Newport Banning Ranch spokesman Adam Alberti called the overlap between the trust and the developers logical.
"It doesn't make it any less a conservancy," he said.
Two years ago the state Franchise Tax Board suspended the trust for failing to file a 2012 tax return, a suspension that remains in effect, according to the tax board website and spokesman Jason Montiel.
Suspended organizations are not supposed to conduct business. That means the trust, which runs educational programs at a native plant nursery and restoration sites in the oil field, has technically been operating illegally.
The trust's accountant, Nancy Hirsch, said all tax returns were filed annually and are up to date. She attributed any confusion over the filings to processing backlogs at the tax board.
Although Montiel said his agency's practice is to send multiple notices by mail before imposing a suspension, Hirsch said she did not receive one.