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Developer sues over Coastal Commission's rejection of Banning Ranch project

Developer sues over Coastal Commission's rejection of Banning Ranch project
The proposed Newport Banning Ranch development called for homes, a hotel and a retail complex. (Los Angeles Times)

The developer of Banning Ranch has filed a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court, challenging state officials' denial of a development project in coastal Newport Beach that included hundreds of homes and a hotel.

Newport Banning Ranch LLC's suit, which is also requesting monetary damages of at least $490 million, comes nearly two months after the 12-member California Coastal Commission denied the company's plan to build 895 homes, a 75-room hotel, 20-bed hostel and 45,100 square feet of retail space on an oilfield overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

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In explaining their decision, the commissioners cited a lack of cohesion between Newport Banning Ranch and commission staff members, who had recommended the project be reduced by about one-third.

In addition to the monetary damages, Newport Banning Ranch's suit, filed Friday, is asking the court to overturn the commission's decision.

"There were an extraordinary and unprecedented amount of procedural errors, misinformation and errors in fact that did not provide the opportunity for a balanced decision that considered all the facts," said Michael Mohler, senior project manager, in a statement.

Coastal Commission representatives could not be reached for comment.

The lawsuit points to commission staff's designation of 64 acres for burrowing owl habitat, a decision Newport Banning Ranch believes eliminated the majority of the project's available land for development and made the project financially unfeasible.

The suit also alleges that commission staff failed to inform the commissioners about biological surveys on the Banning Ranch property indicating that, in most years, burrowing owls haven't used the land to breed and, in fact, only one owl forages there.

Mohler said the decision to designate additional acreage for the owls was "based on inapplicable assumptions by a zoologist working with the project opponents who admitted to the inaccuracies during the hearing, and a lack of expertise by staff."

The lawsuit equates the commission's denial to an illegal taking of private property without compensation and a violation of the developer's 5th and 14th amendment rights.

Banning Ranch is the last big piece of private open land on the Southern California coast.

Twitter: @HannahFryTCN

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