Coastal Commission chairman answers Banning Ranch disclosure questions

The chairman of the California Coastal Commission, facing questions in the past week about his failure to report private meetings with developers planning to build on Banning Ranch, addressed those concerns Thursday morning during a discussion with Newport Beach residents and business officials.

Steve Kinsey said during the Chamber of Commerce's Wake Up Newport meeting that he's become "a bit of a lightning rod" and admitted there have been lapses in his documenting of so-called ex-parte communications. Those are private verbal or written communications between individual commissioners and interested parties that could influence a decision.

During a Coastal Commission meeting Wednesday at Newport Beach City Hall, Kinsey asked the agency's attorney to determine whether he should recuse himself from voting on the Banning Ranch development in light of his filing issues.

Kinsey said Thursday that ex-parte meetings are intended to provide fair access to commissioners for anyone with an issue in front of the commission, whether applicants or opponents of a project.

"There's never been an attempt on my part to hide those meetings," he said.

Kinsey has acknowledged failing to publicly disclose a private meeting he attended Dec. 22 with developers of the proposed Banning Ranch project, which calls for 895 homes, 45,100 square feet of retail space, a 75-room hotel and a 20-bed hostel on 62 acres of the 401-acre coastal expanse overlooking West Coast Highway.

Kinsey has said he lost track of reporting the December meeting during the holidays.

This week, the Los Angeles Times asked Kinsey about an earlier undisclosed communication with representatives of developer Newport Banning Ranch LLC. Kinsey has not filed the required disclosure form about that Nov. 4 meeting, which also involved Commissioner Dayna Bochco and three Banning Ranch representatives, records show.

Bochco disclosed the meeting two days later. However, there is no record that Kinsey filed the appropriate public document, which contains the date, place, participants in the ex-parte discussion and a summary of it.

Ex-parte communications have become an issue since coastal commissioners fired Executive Director Charles Lester in February amid criticism that some commissioners were getting too cozy with developers.

Agency rules require commissioners to fully disclose meetings, phone calls and written communications that occur outside of official public meetings within seven days of the communication. They also must report ex-partes orally from the dais if they occur within seven days of the matter being heard by the commission.

Those who fail to report a private contact can be prohibited from voting on the matter that was discussed and from trying to influence the commission's decision. Violations of the disclosure requirements also carry fines of as much as $7,500, and commission decisions affected by a violation can be revoked.

After Kinsey's two private meetings with the developer, which included a five-hour site tour, he wrote a detailed memo in January to commission Deputy Director Sherilyn Sarb.

In it, he made reference to the tour and challenged commission staff's assessment of environmentally sensitive habitat on the Banning Ranch property. Staff scientists determined that those areas should be protected from development.

"My overall impression is that the site has been so heavily degraded by historic oil operations that many of the areas identified as environmentally sensitive habitat in the staff's October presentation seem unwarranted," Kinsey wrote.

The proposal to build on the Banning Ranch property, known as the largest remaining parcel of undeveloped coastal land in Southern California, has faced scrutiny for years from some residents and preservationists who would prefer the land remain open space.

Newport Banning Ranch has argued that the project would clean up oil facilities on the property and provide public access to the land for the first time in decades.

The Banning Ranch Conservancy, a nonprofit group that opposes the project, has indicated it would like to purchase the property but said it has not raised enough money to do so.

After the Newport Beach City Council approved a larger version of the project in 2012, the conservancy filed a lawsuit alleging that the city had violated its general plan, which prioritizes open space in West Newport.

The conservancy argued that the city did not work with the Coastal Commission in prioritizing specific areas of preservation, in violation of city law. The group also alleged that the project's environmental report did not detail mitigation measures for the development's potential effects.

The case has made its way through Orange County Superior Court and California's 4th District Court of Appeal and will next be heard by the California Supreme Court on an undetermined date.

Conservancy leaders say they hope the high court's eventual decision will force environmental documents to be redone, essentially putting the project back to square one.

Terry Welsh, president of the Banning Ranch Conservancy, said the controversy over Kinsey's failure to file necessary ex-parte documents is a distraction from the real issue.

"The focus should be on Banning Ranch," he said.

However, Welsh said there are discrepancies between developers' interactions with commissioners and those of lower-budget preservation groups.

"Not everyone can wine and dine at the same level," he said. "I'm all for transparency and leveling the playing field."

The Banning Ranch project was scheduled to go before the 12-member Coastal Commission this week, but Newport Banning Ranch asked the commission to postpone the hearing to give the developer more time to review a commission staff proposal that would further reduce the project's footprint.

The plan approved by the City Council proposed 1,375 homes, 75,000 square feet of retail space, a hostel and several parks on about 95 acres.

But after Coastal Commission staff recommended last October that the panel deny the project, Newport Banning Ranch scaled down the proposal to what it is now.

Newport Banning Ranch officials said they will continue to work with commission staff with the goal of the project going before the Coastal Commission within 90 days.

Meanwhile, a bill intended to ban ex-partes by commissioners is scheduled for a vote in the state Senate this week.

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), the author of the measure, said it would protect the integrity of the commission's quasi-judicial process — a court-like proceeding in which the panel hears from both sides much like a judge hears evidence before making a decision.

"This bill will level the playing field between big-moneyed interests and those without such financial resources," Jackson has said of the legislation. "It will remove the possibility of backroom decision-making or the perception that it's occurring and will help ensure that decisions are made more openly and transparently."

Fry is a Daily Pilot staff writer. Weikel writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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