The California Coastal Commission on Thursday unanimously approved a settlement with the main Banning Ranch landowner to end some vegetation removal and oil-well operations that the agency alleges have affected wildlife.
The Coastal Commission and local developer Newport Banning Ranch LLC agreed to the settlement in an attempt to remedy what the commission called "unpermitted development" on the 401-acre expanse of scrub- and grass-covered bluffs and wetlands overlooking the ocean near Pacific Coast Highway.
Newport Banning Ranch agreed to continue not to mow and remove native plants from the property without obtaining a permit through the Coastal Commission. The developer agreed two years ago to stop mowing the land after Coastal Commission staff insisted, according to a commission staff report.
The company, while not admitting liability or wrongdoing, also agreed to remove or seek permits for 17 oil wells that were drilled without Coastal Commission approval and to restore more than 24 acres of native habitat, the staff report states.
"We will stand tall and implement everything in the agreement to the letter of the agreement," said Newport Banning Ranch project manager Mike Mohler.
Andrew Willis, Southern California enforcement supervisor for the commission, called it "one of the largest restoration projects ever put forth by the Coastal Commission."
Newport Banning Ranch plans to build 1,375 homes, commercial space and a 75-room hotel on part of the ranch property. The Newport Beach City Council approved the development plan in 2012, but the Banning Ranch Conservancy, a preservation group, challenged it with a lawsuit that is in appeals court.
The Coastal Commission will review the application for the development at a later meeting. Oil well sites would have to be cleaned up before development could occur.
Both Newport Banning Ranch and the Banning Ranch Conservancy urged commission approval of the agreement. About 50 members of the conservancy – some carrying colorful signs with drawings of birds and other wildlife – packed Thursday's meeting in Chula Vista to show their support for the agreement and to promote keeping the land as open space.
"Three years ago we would have only dreamed of having the mowing stopped, so we have to be happy for that," said conservancy President Terry Welsh.
Problems initially arose between the Coastal Commission and Newport Banning Ranch, Horizontal Development LLC, Armstrong Petroleum Corp. and West Newport Oil Co. after the commission accused the companies of removing vegetation and operating new oil wells without permission in 2013.
The state Coastal Act empowers the commission to remedy violations through cease-and-desist and restoration orders.
"This is a very complicated issue that has a lot of public attention and our attention for the right reasons," Commissioner Mark Vargas said Thursday. "It's the only open space left in this area of Orange County."
The debate hinges on the interpretation of a document approved by the South Coast Conservation Commission in 1973 that allowed oil companies to drill a certain number of wells without a permit.
Mobil, the oil company that owned the land at the time, sought the agreement after the California Coastal Zone Conservation Act, predecessor to the 1976 Coastal Act, made permits a required step for coastal drilling.
The oil companies said they believe they have operated within the scope of the 1973 agreement, which allowed them 340 wells in operation or development without applying for permits.
However, Coastal Commission enforcement staff disagrees, Willis said.
Though the agreement approved Thursday settles the dispute with Newport Banning Ranch, commission staff said it has not reached an agreement with the other companies.