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Preservationists, Costa Mesa weigh next moves in Banning Ranch saga

While this week's appeals court decision in the lawsuit between Newport Beach and a preservation group over the proposed development of Banning Ranch is a bump in a long road for environmentalists, the group that has made it a mission to preserve the land as open space plans to keep fighting.

The legal battle dates to 2012, when the City Council approved Banning Ranch LLC's proposed development of 1,375 homes, a 75-room boutique hotel and a commercial area on a portion of the 400-acre site.

Banning Ranch Conservancy launched a lawsuit against the city, alleging that it violated its own general plan, which prioritizes open space on land in West Newport. The conservancy won the first round in trial court but lost on appeal in a decision handed down Wednesday by Judge Raymond Ikola of the state 4th District Court of Appeal.

The conservancy argued that the city had failed to coordinate with California Coastal Commission staff and experts in developing specific areas, like wetlands, in accord with environmental laws.

However, Ikola wrote that because the city acknowledged that the Coastal Commission would need to provide a coastal development permit before the project could be built, the city complied with applicable laws. The 12-member commission has power over development along the state's shoreline.

Steve Ray, the conservancy's executive director, called the judge's decision "horrid."

"We will do whatever we feel is necessary to protect Banning Ranch, the citizens and the rule of law," Ray said.

The group has the options to appeal the ruling and to fight the project when it goes before the Coastal Commission. A commission hearing has been tentatively set for October, according to the conservancy.

If the project is approved, construction is expected to take more than a decade.

The recent history of the land is a tale of two neighboring cities — one with all the power and the other with none.

Banning Ranch, one of the largest remaining undeveloped areas in Orange County, is sandwiched between Newport Beach and Costa Mesa but falls under Newport Beach's sphere of influence, meaning Costa Mesa's opinion on the matter doesn't count for much, Ray said.

However, the majority of the traffic and noise from the proposed development would affect Costa Mesa residents, he said.

Depending on one's perspective, an increase in Newport Beach residents driving through Costa Mesa would either snarl traffic to an unmanageable level or result in more people spending money and helping to raise property values in Costa Mesa's Westside.

The Banning Ranch environmental impact report shows that the west side of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa would experience congestion at more than seven intersections, including Newport Boulevard and 17th Street; 18th and 19th streets; Newport and Harbor boulevards and Superior Avenue and 17th Street.

The increased traffic also would cause a high level of ambient noise, according to the report.

Banning Ranch LLC proposed giving Costa Mesa about $4 million in 2013 to make street improvements, which by city estimates are likely to cost much more, but the City Council could not reach a consensus on the agreement.

Costa Mesa Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer said the city is waiting until the commission takes up the matter before making firm decisions about how and when to fund intersection improvements.

Because some of the intersections are already problematic, the city can't ask the developer to foot the entire bill, Righeimer said.

"That's the Catch-22 we're caught in," he said. "We're going to be in a much better position if they know if they have a project or if they don't have a project."

The land that has caused the intense battle hasn't been open to the public for more than 70 years. A chain-link fence surrounds the expanse of scrub and grass-covered bluffs, wetlands, dirt roads and active oil wells that have been in operation since the 1940s.

The controversy has drawn comparisons to the decades-long fight over the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Huntington Beach, where a scaled-down development proposal was eventually approved in 2005.

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