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Newport council withdraws approvals for Banning Ranch development

Newport council withdraws approvals for Banning Ranch development
Visitors take a walking tour of Banning Ranch in Newport Beach in July 2016. The City Council on Tuesday repealed approvals for a shelved housing, hotel and retail project planned for the property. (File Photo)

The Newport Banning Ranch development no longer has the city of Newport Beach's endorsement.

The City Council on Tuesday night unanimously repealed several years-old approvals for the shelved housing, hotel and retail project under court order after the California Supreme Court ruled in March that the city’s environmental impact statement was insufficient. The project has twice been blocked by the California Coastal Commission.

But people invested both in development and preservation of some or all of Banning Ranch's 401 acres of scrub and grasslands at the city's western edge told the council they would be back to further their visions.

Steve Ray, executive director of the Banning Ranch Conservancy, a group that wants to buy the property and preserve it as open space, said his group has the funding partners to move ahead with the acquisition and wants the city's cooperation in helping to make the area what he says would be a major asset for locals and visitors.

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"We appreciate that hopefully in the future you will be willing to work with us and that any future for the Banning Ranch project can be done in a harmonious and cooperative fashion and not have to go through all the recriminations that led to this moment tonight," Ray said.

After the state high court's ruling, a spokesman for developer Newport Banning Ranch said the project is only being delayed, it "is not going away."

Mike Mohler, Newport Banning Ranch's senior project manager, echoed that Tuesday.

"Whether it's the 40 acres we tried to get developed out of 400 — 10% — or some other scheme, we're going to look forward in the next year to sitting down with you, to sitting down with Steve and Terry [Welsh, the conservancy's president] and having more discussions and see how we can create a better communication and a kinder communication between all of us," he told the council.

"There's no attempt to bury anybody. We're just exercising our property rights, and we thought we had a formula that allowed everybody to win. It didn't work, but we'll be back with more ideas."

If the project does go back before the city — unchanged from its most recent iteration or modified — it would need another council approval.

In 2012, the council — with different members — certified an environmental impact report and approval of general plan and code amendments, a development agreement and several other development-related plans for what at the time included 1,375 homes, a 75-room resort hotel and a 75,000-square-foot retail complex on about 95 acres of one of the largest undeveloped swaths of coastal land remaining in Southern California.

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 Banning Ranch Conservancy sued the city after it approved the development, saying it violated the city's general plan that prioritizes open space in West Newport. The case reached the state Supreme Court, which ruled that Newport Beach had improperly approved the development by not considering the area's environmentally sensitive wildlife habitat.

An Orange County Superior Court judge, under direction from the state's 4th District Court of Appeal, ordered the city to vacate all Banning Ranch-related approvals.

Welsh said the property — and its preservation — is always on his mind.

"Our family went to Maui last summer, and as I was sitting there on a beautiful beach watching a spectacular sunset, I was thinking about Banning Ranch," he said. "You can say that I'm committed, or you can say that I'm obsessed, or you can say that I'm crazy. But what I would say is that I prioritize the acquisition of Banning Ranch as an open space amenity."

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 commission rejected the permit application in 2016 and again this year.

Twitter: @Daily_PilotHD

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