Commentary: Banning Ranch warrants protection from development

What is Banning Ranch?

Banning Ranch, the last large, open land in private hands on the Southern California coast, is in danger of irrevocable damage.

This wild 400 acres sits along the Santa Ana River on the west and Superior Avenue on the east, near Newport Beach city limits. Forty years ago the land was in heavy use as an oil field.

Today, most of the active wells are gone and the plants and wildlife have largely recovered, transforming a blighted industrial landscape into a natural treasure. The diversity of its land forms, the vitality of its ecosystem and bluff-top panoramic views of the ocean, make it a rare coastal gem.

Unfortunately, this exquisite ocean vista has made Banning Ranch the target of developers who want to pave it over and build a hotel, 1,375 homes, 75,000 feet of commercial space, parking lots and a four-lane arterial highway, creating severe and unmanageable impacts from the noise, traffic congestion and air pollution.

Imagine the jams at major intersections and all the way north to the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway corridor. Imagine what will be exposed when they start excavating the deadly toxins that have accumulated from 70 years of oil production. Imagine being confronted with row upon row of homes instead of the calming, peaceful sight of a snowy egret when you walk along the river trail.

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What is the current state of the ranch?

It has been targeted for development by Newport Banning Ranch LLC. A draft environmental impact report has been submitted for review and awaits approval by the city of Newport Beach. If the project is approved, the surrounding communities will be subjected to an estimated 10 years of grading, excavating, remediating and construction, all facilitated by pollution-spewing heavy equipment.

The noise will be intolerable, the air unfit to breathe. Oil field toxins will create health risks for all, but especially children, the elderly and the infirm. Much of the ranch's natural flora will be sacrificed, as well as its wildlife.

Sadly, in order to develop the land, Newport Banning must first destroy much of it.

According to the Environmental Quality Affairs Committee, "excavation on the project site means moving 2,600,000 cubic yards of soil. Cuts will be as deep as 25 feet. Canyons and ridges will be either changed or eliminated.

Much of the topography in the area of the project will have permanent soil disturbance and the visual character of the topography will be changed." At completion, the project will be four times the density of Crystal Cove and nearly as large as the last five big coastal developments combined.

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Why save Banning Ranch from development?

Simply put, there are no other ecosystems left in Orange County that contain the combination of vast grasslands, deep arroyos, thickly vegetated bluffs and lowland marshes in such a concentrated space. Banning Ranch is one of a kind.

Countless species, common and endangered, have established themselves on the land. Hawks float above the grasslands in search of the abundance of ground squirrels venturing from their burrows below.

Coyotes that live in the arroyos also hunt the rich grasslands. Vernal pool wetlands support protected fairy shrimp and noisy populations of frogs. The mesas are blanketed with a yellow flowered native plant called Encelia that provides nesting to endangered California gnatcatchers and other rare birds.

All of these elements exist in an intricate bio network that is unique and irreplaceable. It cannot be recreated and will never exist again if we, the people, let them plow it up and replace it with the equivalent of a small town.

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Who can save the ranch?

You can. Join the Banning Ranch Conservancy, a 501(c)3 nonprofit actively working to acquire the land and open it to public use by creating a nature preserve and park. Its vision is to allow the land to continue to naturally restore itself, aided by whatever bio-remediation is necessary to mitigate the heavy damage. Nature trails, an interpretive center and other recreational uses are being considered. But no land forms will be destroyed, no wildlife will be lost and none of the natural vegetation will be sacrificed.

Only a groundswell of public support can forestall the development of Banning Ranch.

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What can you do?

•Attend the council meetings of the cities most impacted by the development: Newport Beach, Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach.

Write to your council members. Tell them you want a nature preserve and park for future generations.

Join the Banning Ranch Conservancy and donate, if possible, to support their tireless efforts to save the land. Visit http://www.banningranchconservancy.org for more information.

SUZANNE FORSTER, KEVIN NELSON and JAMIE WOOD are members of the Banning Ranch Conservancy.

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