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The California Coastal Commission got the Banning Ranch decision right. But was it for the right reasons?

The California Coastal Commission got the Banning Ranch decision right. But was it for the right reasons?
Protesters opposing the development of Newport Banning Ranch celebrate after the Coastal Commission voted 9-1 to reject a large development project, on Sept. 7 at Newport Beach. (Los Angeles Times)

In the end, the California Coastal Commission got the Banning Ranch decision right. But maybe not for the right reasons.

The Coastal Commission has been embroiled in controversy all year, triggered by its move to dismiss its widely respected executive director, Charles Lester, in February. The firing amplified concerns by environmentalists (and us) that the state body charged with protecting the coast was becoming pro-development.

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But late Wednesday, the commission voted 9-1 to reject a plan by the Newport Banning Ranch group to build 895 homes, a hotel and other developments on 70 acres of the 401-acre Banning Ranch oil field near the mouth of the Santa Ana River in Newport Beach.

The Coastal Commission staff's most recent recommendation was for a much smaller development — fewer than 500 houses and condominiums on 20 acres along the east-central edge of the parcel, with a 329-acre wetlands and coastal bluff preserve of vernal pools and native plant and animal species, including burrowing owls (whose foraging needs didn't come to the fore until late in the process), fairy shrimp and the California gnatcatcher. The developers had rejected that proposal as too small to be financially feasible.

The proposed development has a tortuous, two-decade long history, and Wednesday's vote doesn't end it. The developers can return to the commission in six months with a new plan and a $250,000 filing fee. Or they can sue. Or they can carry through with their threats to leave the debris-strewn oil field as it is, which would likely draw legal challenges to force the landowners to do some remediation and clean up. But what the developers can't do, at least for now, is build on the site, which has pleased many of the project's opponents since it preserves the habitat even if it doesn't make the space accessible to the public.

Still, the vote didn't resolve the broader question of whether the commission has become more receptive to development at the expense of its clear responsibility under the California Coastal Act of 1976 to protect the coast and the public's access to it. Given that directive, the commission shouldn't be striving simply to negotiate settlements between competing visions of development. Rather, the commissioners should match proposed developments against the need to ensure that the coastal zone is protected from deterioration, is publicly accessible, and has its ecological balance of native plant and animals preserved.

Yet remarks Wednesday suggested that at least some members of the panel view their role as finding a happy medium between developers and the commission's staff scientists. Several commissioners indicated that they were frustrated that the developers and the Coastal Commission staff couldn't come up with a mutually agreeable plan, and wished they could continue the discussions and approve a project. That is worrisome. Protecting the coast requires clear vision and decisions based on scientific assessments, which is a much different environment than striking a real estate deal. The commissioners need to re-embrace that core mission.

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