A pair of Newport Beach philanthropists has promised $50 million to a group of environmentalists that has long worked to protect Banning Ranch’s 401 acres from development.
Frank and Joann Randall surprised the nonprofit Banning Ranch Conservancy with the gift at the group’s annual gala Saturday, seeding the conservancy’s acquisition fund to try to keep the property at Newport’s western edge — one of Southern California’s largest remaining undeveloped swaths of coastal land — as a nature reserve.
“It’s a considerable sum of money,” said conservancy Executive Director Steve Ray. “It’s not enough to buy Banning Ranch in and of itself, but it’s moving us a long way down the road.”
The potential price tag of any attempt to buy Banning Ranch is unclear. The Trust for Public Land, which is helping the Banning Ranch Conservancy in its efforts to negotiate a purchase from owner Newport Banning Ranch, will commission an independent appraisal to determine the current value of the full property, said Paolo Perrone, project manager for the Trust for Public Land’s Southern California region.
Newport Banning Ranch did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Perrone said he didn’t want to speculate on a timeline for a possible purchase but said the current position is exciting.
“We’re doing everything we can to make that generosity into a reality for Banning Ranch,” Perrone said.
With the $50 million for the acquisition fund, Ray said the conservancy can be more attractive for public-private partnerships, like a piece of the Proposition 68 outdoor-access and parkland grants offered by the state Coastal Conservancy. Prop. 68 was approved by state voters in June 2018 to help create parks, protect coastal forests and wetlands and provide funding for outdoor access, reduced-cost coastal accommodations and climate adaptation.
Ray said the Randalls had previously promised $5 million.
“Not that $5 million doesn’t make a difference, but $50 million makes a huge difference,” Ray said.
Frank Randall, an 89-year-old retired stockbroker and commercial real estate developer, said he had never given such a large amount but that Banning Ranch presents a unique opportunity and he was ready to try to speed up the acquisition process.
“I’m not young anymore, so I intend to do more before I leave this good earth,” he said.
Randall said buildings can be removed, but land is never the same once it’s built on.
“Once open space is lost, it’s really lost for good,” he said.
Until recently, the conservancy had been in protection mode. Competing interests for some or all of Banning Ranch’s scrub and grasslands have held the attention of developers and preservationists for two decades.
The California Coastal Commission blocked the most recent development attempt — which would have brought 895 homes, a 75-room hotel, a 20-bed hostel and 45,100 square feet of retail space to 62 acres of the property — in 2016 and again in 2017.
Shortly after the commission’s second denial, the California Supreme Court ruled that the city’s environmental impact statement, which was part of the local approvals for the development, was insufficient.
The Banning Ranch Conservancy sued the city after it approved the development in 2012, saying it violated the city’s general plan that prioritizes open space in West Newport. The state’s high court ruled that Newport Beach had not considered the area’s environmentally sensitive wildlife habitat, and the City Council repealed the years-old approvals under court order in November 2017.
At least six endangered or sensitive species have been documented at Banning Ranch: birds such as the Least Bell’s vireo, Belding’s Savannah sparrow, California gnatcatcher, light-footed clapper rail and peregrine falcon and invertebrates like the San Diego fairy shrimp.