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Newport Banning Ranch to pay conservancy $1.25 million in attorneys’ fees in lawsuit settlement

Newport Banning Ranch to pay conservancy $1.25 million in attorneys’ fees in lawsuit settlement
The California Supreme Court sided with the Banning Ranch Conservancy last year in its argument against the environmental report for a proposed development at the sprawling Newport Beach property, ultimately leading to the city's revocation of approvals for the project. (File Photo)

The would-be developer of Banning Ranch will pay the Banning Ranch Conservancy $1.25 million in attorneys' fees in a settlement of a lawsuit the conservancy filed over the now-shelved Newport Beach housing, hotel and retail development.

"We consider this matter closed," Steve Ray, the conservancy's executive director, said in a statement. "We are looking forward to putting the contentiousness of the past 10 years behind us and creating a new dialogue with the city and the landowner."

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The California Supreme Court sided with the Banning Ranch Conservancy last year in its argument against the adequacy of the project's environmental impact report, ultimately leading to the city's revocation of approvals to build on part of the 401-acre swath of coastal scrub and grasslands at Newport's western edge. Much of the site has been occupied by oil operations for decades.

Michael Mohler, project manager for developer Newport Banning Ranch LLC, said the company "will continue to evaluate all options that could lead to accelerated cleanup of the oilfield and public access to the property. Banning Ranch Conservancy will be included in those discussions."

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Conservancy President Terry Welsh said in a statement that the group will continue its efforts to buy the property for permanent open space.

The conservancy's legal case kicked off in 2012, when the Newport Beach City Council certified the Banning Ranch environmental impact report and approved general plan and code amendments, a development agreement and several other related plans for the project, which at the time included 1,375 homes, a 75-room resort hotel and a 75,000-square-foot retail complex on about 95 acres.

The project was later whittled to 895 homes, a 75-room hotel, a 20-bed hostel and 45,100 square feet of retail space on 62 acres.

The case reached the state Supreme Court, which ruled a year ago that Newport Beach had improperly approved the development by not considering the area's environmentally sensitive wildlife habitat.

Except for the environmental report and the development agreement, all other approvals were not to take effect until the California Coastal Commission granted the project a coastal development permit, among other actions. The Coastal Commission, the state agency tasked with coastal management and planning, rejected the permit application in 2016 and affirmed the rejection in 2017.

Ray said in an interview Thursday that the conservancy isn't crowing about the settlement and is instead committed to working with Newport Banning Ranch.

"We're heading in that direction," he said.

Twitter: @Daily_PilotHD

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