Banning Ranch landowner seeks to drop suit against Coastal Commission

The would-be developer of Banning Ranch wants to drop its lawsuit against the California Coastal Commission for denying its project after the state Supreme Court sided with conservationists in a separate lawsuit against the city of Newport Beach.

Newport Banning Ranch LLC lodged a proposed judgment this week in Orange County Superior Court seeking to have the case dismissed as moot. Judge Kim Dunning had not posted a response as of Friday.

The suggested judgment, filed Monday, stipulates that Newport Banning Ranch could revive its lawsuit if the Coastal Commission uses the findings in its most recent denial, issued in February, to reject a future proposal for the sprawling coastal property.

Project officials have said they will be back with more ideas for the site.

“Newport Banning Ranch is looking and assessing what opportunities and steps it will take next in developing the property,” company spokesman Sam Singer said in an email Friday.

A representative of the Coastal Commission was not immediately available for comment Friday.

The developer’s suit, filed last year after the Coastal Commission denied the company’s plan to build 895 homes, a 75-room hotel, a 20-bed hostel and 45,100 square feet of retail space on 62 of Banning Ranch’s 401 acres in West Newport, sought damages of at least $490 million and a reversal of the commission’s decision.

But after the California Supreme Court sided with the Banning Ranch Conservancy, a preservationist group, in March in a lawsuit over doubts about the adequacy of the project’s environmental impact report — ultimately leading to the revocation of city-issued development approvals — the developer sought to abandon its lawsuit. The state Supreme Court’s ruling supersedes anything that could have been decided in the lower Superior Court.

The Banning Ranch saga has been going on for 20 years, with tension among owners who want to build on one of the largest undeveloped swaths of coastal land remaining in Southern California, environmentalists who strongly oppose development on the site and the Coastal Commission, the state agency tasked with coastal management and planning.

The commission rejected Newport Banning Ranch’s proposal in 2016 and again this year. Commission staff recommended that the project be reduced to about 20 acres outside of areas identified as environmentally sensitive habitat, particularly for burrowing owls.

Newport Banning Ranch argued in its lawsuit that the commission’s denial of the proposal equated to an illegal taking of private property without compensation and that the staff recommendation would make the project financially unfeasible. It also alleged that commission staff failed to inform the commissioners about biological surveys on the Banning Ranch property indicating that, in most years, burrowing owls haven’t used the land to breed and, in fact, only one owl actually foraged there.

hillary.davis@latimes.com

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