Banning Ranch developer seeks more space to build

The developer seeking permission to build homes, commercial space and parks on a portion of the 401-acre Newport Beach coastal spread known as Banning Ranch asked state officials this week to ease some restrictions for the site, which would allow more space to build.

The request is the latest volley between developer Newport Banning Ranch LLC and the California Coastal Commission staff, which has pushed to scale back the development plans since the project went to the agency for consideration.

Newport Banning Ranch is expected to submit formal plans to the Coastal Commission by early July detailing proposed changes to the project.

The project is expected to go before the 12-member commission, which has final say over development along California's coast, in September.

The developer is now proposing to build a road through the property that would link Costa Mesa's Westside to West Coast Highway.

"We think it's important that the people of Costa Mesa – in particular the community of Westside Costa Mesa – have a road that would allow a direct connection to the coast," senior project manager Michael Mohler said in a statement issued Wednesday.

Coastal Commission staff has proposed restrictions that would break the project into a "series of unconnected cul-de-sacs," Mohler said.

Newport Banning Ranch also is seeking the staff's permission to reduce the buffer zone between development areas and environmentally sensitive habitat areas from 100 feet to 50 feet and is asking the staff to reconsider its decision to designate two small areas as wetlands.

The developer says the areas, which equal about 24 square feet, were dug by workers repairing an underground oil pipeline and occasionally fill with water during seasonal rains. The wetlands designation prevents construction on or near the areas.

"These are man-made holes dug to fix a man-made problem and are by no means natural wetlands," Mohler said in the statement. "These kinds of unreasonable restrictions make it difficult to put together a cohesive plan that meets the intent of the Coastal Act, the community's standards and intelligently restores the property for development, environmental and educational purposes."

Coastal Commission staff could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The Banning Ranch Conservancy, which opposes development of the site, said the property is made up of valuable habitat that must be protected under the state Coastal Act.

Newport Banning Ranch originally proposed 1,375 homes, 75,000 square feet of retail space, a hostel and several parks on about 95 acres of Banning Ranch. That plan was approved by the Newport Beach City Council in 2012.

However, after an eight-hour hearing in October, the Coastal Commission sent the developer back to the drawing board to make significant cuts to the project's footprint and scope.

Commission staff expressed opposition to the proposal during the October meeting and in a report noted that the land is home to "sensitive coastal species" including the threatened California gnatcatcher, along with a rare vernal pool system and one of the few remaining significant areas of native grassland.

Staff and commissioners suggested they likely would favor "less intense" development. They also cited merits of the project, including opening the land for public use and condensing oil operations that have long occupied the site.

Staff ecologists revisited the site after the October hearing and remapped the environmentally sensitive areas. The maps reduced the number of seasonal pools and purple needle grass but expanded the California gnatcatcher habitat.

In the end, the amount of habitat considered sensitive had declined, increasing the amount of land available for the proposed development from about 18 acres to 55, according to a staff report.

In November, Newport Banning Ranch sent the Coastal Commission a scaled-back plan for 895 homes, a 75-room hotel, a 20-bed hostel and 45,100 square feet of retail space on about 62 acres. About 310 acres of Banning Ranch would be preserved as natural open space with public trails, plans show.

Commission staff recommended approval of that plan in May but included conditions that would further reduce its footprint.

But Newport Banning Ranch decided to delay going before the commission in May, saying some issues remained unresolved and that it needed more time to review the staff's proposal.

Under Newport Banning Ranch's latest plan, about 20% of the site would be developed, with the majority of the rest left as a nature preserve.

The developer hasn't indicated plans to reduce the size of the project before September's hearing.

"The problem with the developers and commission staff is that they are still not listening," said Steve Ray, executive director of the Banning Ranch Conservancy. "They want to get all the land they can to develop on, but the problem is, when the land has valuable habitat and vernal pools, it just can't happen."

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Hannah Fry, hannah.fry@latimes.com

Twitter: @HannahFryTCN

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