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Coastal Commission locks in Banning Ranch denial, though developer vows to fight on

After a roughly nine-hour session in September in which the conversation was as much about burrowing owls and San Diego fairy shrimp than about houses and hotel rooms, the California Coastal Commission voted 9-1 against a residential and commercial development proposal for Banning Ranch.

On Thursday afternoon, after a considerably shorter hearing that again brought up the owls and endangered shrimp species reportedly found at Newport Beach's 401-acre undeveloped coastal expanse, the commission said it again: No.

Thursday's move at Newport Beach City Hall was procedural, confirming the commission's reasoning for why it couldn't approve Newport Banning Ranch LLC's proposal for 895 homes, a 75-room hotel, a 20-bed hostel and 45,100 square feet of retail space on 62 acres.

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The reasons centered on the belief that the development wouldn't comply with environmental law that protects the area's various species and habitats.

Of the nine commissioners who dissented on the plan in September, one, Mark Vargas, voted Thursday against approving the earlier denial, saying he didn't think what commission staff wrote since the September hearing accurately reflected the commissioners' reasoning.

Newport Banning Ranch attorney Steven Kaufmann contended that the commission's vote Thursday would preclude any future consideration of development at Banning Ranch.

Commission staff later said that was not true because the developer is not forbidden from presenting another project.

Kaufmann asked that the commission include language in its denial that the commissioners lacked "site-specific or scientific information" and thus could not determine whether the development is consistent with the state Coastal Act.

He said the addition would better conform to the sentiment of the commissioners last year, who he said harbored "unresolved issues" because they didn't have enough information on environmental effects.

Steve Ray, executive director of the Banning Ranch Conservancy, which opposes the project, compared the request to a desperate "Hail Mary" pass in football.

"They're asking you to throw them a Hail Mary pass in the end zone ... to maybe have a ghost of a chance of winning in court," Ray told the commissioners.

Ray questioned why Newport Banning Ranch isn't accepting the September vote. The company filed a lawsuit in November challenging the decision.

"No means no," Ray said. "It doesn't comply with the Coastal Act ... this [project] didn't pass the smell test. It was not to be there."

After the meeting, Newport Banning Ranch spokesman Sam Singer called the commission's report on its denial "riddled with errors, misinformation and incorrect data."

Singer said the commission threatens to keep Banning Ranch — some of which is an active oilfield — fenced off for future generations as an "industrial brownfield."

"The commission has passed up a vital opportunity to obtain additional information about the Newport Banning Ranch site — something the commissioners specifically requested at the September 2016 hearing," Singer said in an email. "Their action today attempts to cement the incomplete view of the evidence, questionable analysis and unfair and unfortunate conclusions."

He said the company will continue with its lawsuit, which he said will "demonstrate the extraordinary and unprecedented amount of procedural errors, misinformation and errors in fact that failed to provide the opportunity for a balanced decision that considered all the facts."

"These actions have led to the illegal taking of our property rights and is a violation of the Fifth and 14th amendments to the Constitution," Singer said.

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Bradley Zint, bradley.zint@latimes.com

Twitter: @BradleyZint

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