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Newport-Mesa school district will remove unauthorized fence bordering Banning Ranch

Fence
This is a portion of an unpermitted fence on property owned by the Newport-Mesa Unified School District adjacent to Banning Ranch in Newport Beach.
(Courtesy of California Coastal Commission)

An unpermitted chain-link fence around a school district-owned parcel adjacent to the environmentally sensitive Banning Ranch property in Newport Beach is coming down for the sake of rare gnatcatchers, burrowing owls and fairy shrimp.

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District didn’t have a California Coastal Commission development permit that was needed to erect the fence because of the land’s proximity to the ocean. But it did get a permit Thursday to remove the fence, which it built in 2012 during a contentious time in the area’s history.

Like the 401-acre swath of open scrubland that surrounds it, the school district property has freshwater wetlands and vernal pools, grassland and coastal sage scrub that support a variety of endangered and sensitive species.

Tim Holcomb, the district’s assistant superintendent and chief operating officer, said Newport-Mesa bought the property at the western edges of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa in 1965 as a potential school site, knowing that land purchases in the future would be more expensive and contentious. The district put up the fence to keep out trespassers when developers were pitching a Banning Ranch development plan that eventually died after years of fighting at City Hall, the Coastal Commission and the courts.

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Newport-Mesa and the commission have been working on a resolution of the fence issue for nearly seven years. That includes the district trying to get after-the-fact approval to keep the fence in place.

The district uses some of its 11.5-acre site for heavy-equipment storage, but the 3-acre portion in question is undeveloped and habitat for sensitive species fragmented by the fence.

Suzanne Forrester, vice president of the Banning Ranch Conservancy, said it is “highly unlikely that in the seven years the unpermitted fence has been in existence it has deterred even one trespasser, thief, ne’er do well, miscreant or otherwise unscrupulous character. Far more likely, the unpermitted fence has deterred a lot of wildlife.”

“Unfortunately,” Holcomb said, “the district did not do its homework about what permits were required and simply presumed that adding to the existing perimeter fencing did not require a permit. In hindsight, the district’s initial pursuit of the permit in 2015 to retain the fence despite its location adjacent to sensitive habitats was also naive on the district’s part.”

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With the commission’s unanimous approval secured, the district can pull out about 2,000 linear feet of chain-link, 170 fence posts and six concrete post footings. It also will remove invasive vegetation and plant native grasses to restore the area.

The removal will begin within six months.

The Banning Ranch land is federally declared critical habitat for the threatened California gnatcatcher and the endangered San Diego fairy shrimp. Wintering western burrowing owls use the grasslands for foraging; the rare ground-dwelling birds have been seen in and around the district patch over the years, Forrester said.

Invasive black mustard, crown daisies, wild radish and tocalote thistles crowd the area, and a fence post pierces one of the fairy shrimp’s seasonal pools.

fence burrowing owl.jpg
This image highlights a burrowing owl behind the fence on the property owned by the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.
(Courtesy of California Coastal Commission)

Steve Ray, director of the Banning Ranch Conservancy, said the group wants to help with the restoration and make it an educational opportunity for students.

“We feel that the education will give the kids hands-on citizen science type of opportunities to help in data collection as they watch this restoration project advance,” said Kay Howell, the conservancy’s education director. “We also see the opportunity for career and technical education, and we would really enjoy working with the school district on this project.”

Holcomb said the district remains concerned about trespassing but is pleased to work with the state to mitigate impacts.

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