A fenced-off parcel that would be the site of a massive housing development proposed near the Newport Beach shoreline was opened to visitors Wednesday for a rare public tour by the California Coastal Commission.
Developers are asking for permission build 1,375 homes, commercial space and a resort hotel on a portion of the 401-acre Banning Ranch property in what agency officials say is the largest residential project before the state coastal panel in many years.
Following a regular public meeting, commission members and staff boarded buses late Wednesday and joined environmentalists, developers, nearby residents and other members of the public for a field trip to the privately owned site.
From several points, the group surveyed the expanse of scrub and grass-covered bluffs, wetlands, active oil wells and dirt roads that overlook the ocean near Pacific Coast Highway and the mouth of the Santa Ana River.
"This is our first chance to see it firsthand and be on the land that we're trying to save," said Suzanne Forster, who lives near the property and is vice president of the Banning Ranch Conservancy, which has for years fought development there.
Newport Banning Ranch LLC is proposing to build two "family villages," a mixed-use "urban colony" and a 75-room resort hotel on the sprawling property. Under the plan, nearly 300 acres would be set aside as public park and open space, and some land would be reserved for ongoing oil operations.
During the tour, Coastal Commission staffers pointed out native shrubs, plants and bird habitat that sit where homes and other amenities are proposed and identified vernal pools and other wetland areas that would be restored and preserved under the plan. Visitors also saw rusty pipes, tanks, pumpjacks and other industrial equipment dispersed throughout the site.
Commissioners took no action on the project during the visit, which was intended to inform future decision-making while giving anyone interested in the project a glimpse of the property.
Michael Mohler, senior project manager for Newport Banning Ranch LLC, said the company had never before offered a tour to so many members of the public. Most of the site has been used for oil operations for decades, he said, and has remained off-limits for liability reasons.
The Newport Beach City Council approved the development plan in 2012, but the Banning Ranch Conservancy has challenged it in court.
To move forward, the project must be approved by the 12-member Coastal Commission, which has power over development and public access along the state's 1,100-mile shoreline. But the panel is unlikely to hold a hearing on the project until later this year or early 2015 because the developer has not submitted a complete application, according to agency staff.
The fight over Banning Ranch already has drawn comparisons to the decades-long battle over development on the Bolsa Chica wetlands in neighboring Huntington Beach.
In that case, developers originally proposed building 5,000 homes. Ultimately the project was scaled down to a few hundred homes, which the Coastal Commission approved in 2005.