California Supreme Court to hear lawsuit over plans to develop Banning Ranch

The California Supreme Court has decided to hear arguments in a lawsuit between Newport Beach and a preservation group fighting to prevent Banning Ranch from being developed.

The state's highest court agreed Wednesday to a request from the Banning Ranch Conservancy to review the City Council's approval in 2012 of Banning Ranch LLC's proposed development of 1,375 homes, a 75-room boutique inn and a commercial area on about 95 acres of the 401-acre site, which overlooks the ocean beside West Coast Highway. It is unclear when the court might hear the case.

In response to the city's approval of the project, the conservancy filed a lawsuit alleging that Newport Beach violated its own general plan, which prioritizes open space on land in West Newport. The conservancy argues that the city did not work with the California Coastal Commission in prioritizing specific areas of preservation, in violation of city law. The group also alleges that the project's environmental report did not detail mitigation measures for the development's effects, according to court documents.

During the past several years, the case has made its way through Orange County Superior Court and California's 4th District Court of Appeal.

Steve Ray, executive director of the Banning Ranch Conservancy, said he was surprised that the California Supreme Court accepted the case less than a month after the group filed its request. The court agrees to hear less than 5% of the thousands of petitions it receives each year.

"We feel very confident that we are going to prevail in this next round and that the city's actions are going to be seen as a violation of the law," Ray said.

A representative of the city declined to comment Thursday afternoon.

In late 2013, an Orange County Superior Court judge ruled in the conservancy's favor on the alleged general plan violation. However, the judge also ruled that the project's environmental impact report was adequate.

The city filed an appeal in January 2014 of the ruling on the general plan issue. A three-judge panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled in May this year that the city did not violate its general plan.

Judge Raymond Ikola, writing for the appeals panel, said 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 Coastal Commission has power over development along the California coastline. It may decide whether to approve a permit for the Banning Ranch project during a hearing in October.

"We're continuing to look forward to the Coastal Commission hearing," said Marice DePasquale, a spokeswoman for Banning Ranch LLC.

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