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Coastal Commission to revisit reasoning behind its Banning Ranch denial

The California Coastal Commission is scheduled to convene Thursday in Newport Beach to review its rejection last year of a proposed mixed-use development at Banning Ranch.

In September, the commission voted 9-1 to deny developer Newport Banning Ranch LLC's plan to build 895 homes, a 75-room hotel, a 20-bed hostel and 45,100 square feet of retail space on 62 acres of the 401-acre privately owned property in West Newport. Nearly all of the remaining land was to be aside as an open space preserve.

Since then, commission staff has codified the reasoning behind the commission's denial. Staff will ask the nine commissioners who voted against the project to accept amended documents.

The denial was centered on the belief that Newport Banning Ranch's proposal was not consistent with state law that protects environmentally sensitive habitats and species.

The Banning Ranch property, an active oilfield for decades, is home to burrowing owls, the threatened California gnatcatcher, the endangered San Diego fairy shrimp and rare plants. It also contains Native American archaeological sites.

Thursday's hearing will come about three months after Newport Banning Ranch sued the Coastal Commission for denying the project. The lawsuit, filed in Orange County Superior Court, is requesting at least $490 million in damages and seeks to overturn the rejection.

Steve Ray, executive director of the Banning Ranch Conservancy, which wants the property to remain undeveloped, said he expects "a big fight," especially with the lawsuit looming.

He said his group, though pleased with the commission's decision, felt that some of the denial reasoning isn't strong enough.

Sam Singer, a spokesman for Newport Banning Ranch, declined to provide specific points that the developer will bring up Thursday.

"Our goal is to ensure that the record is correct and to verify what really occurred at the September hearing," he said.

Coastal Commission staff has said it doesn't think development is impossible on Banning Ranch. It identified a roughly 19-acre area suitable for development that could contain hundreds of units.

Even the conservancy, through its own study, identified a 6.7-acre area that could contain 108 homes, Ray said.

In September, Michael Mohler, senior project manager for the developer, rejected the commission staff's proposal for a reduced project. He called it economically unfeasible and akin to illegally taking private property.

Thursday's hearing will start at 9 a.m. at Newport Beach City Hall, 100 Civic Center Drive.

The commission's full report on its denial is available at coastal.ca.gov.

bradley.zint@latimes.com

Twitter: @BradleyZint

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