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All the required $97 million now in place to buy, conserve Banning Ranch

An oil pumpjack operates near Encelia, a native shrub at Banning Ranch.
An oil pumpjack operates near Encelia, a native shrub and part of the coastal sage scrub plant community in the Banning Ranch oil field on the border of Costa Mesa and Newport Beach.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Last year, the Trust for Public Land announced that it struck an exclusive agreement to purchase Banning Ranch.

As part of that agreement, the nonprofit was given one year to raise the $47 million remaining of the $97-million purchase price to secure the old oil field on the border of Costa Mesa and Newport Beach. On Thursday, the Trust for Public Land announced it had secured the final piece of funding needed to purchase the 384-acre parcel of land with a vote by the California’s Wildlife Conservation Board, which promised a grant of up to $15.5 million.

“There’s adrenaline running through my veins,” said Melanie Schlotterbeck, executive director of the Banning Ranch Conservancy.

“I’m always one of those people who don’t want to count their chickens before they hatch. We still have to close escrow, but boy, this is such a significant moment,” said Schlotterbeck. “I’m exceedingly excited.”

Schlotterbeck credited a 2019 $50-million donation from philanthropists Frank and Joann Randall of Newport Beach, along with Banning Ranch Conservancy board and its president, Terry Welsh, as the reasons “we’re even standing here today. We couldn’t get anywhere without the money and we couldn’t get anywhere without the devotion to conservation.”

Conservationists have long eyed the property with the hope of turning it into a public park even as developers looked to build in the area. With the last of the funding secured, the property will now enter escrow, which Schlotterbeck said is expected to close this summer.

Guillermo Rodriguez, the Trust for Public Land’s California state director and vice president for the Pacific region, said the next steps are to secure an agreement for the remediation of the land and to sign over the property to the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, which will receive Banning Ranch.

“There has to be a gift of the land for it to be public,” Rodriguez explained.

Rodriguez said the hard part of the acquisition of Banning Ranch was over, though he joked mountains of paperwork remain before the dust really settles.

“We’ve been at it for five years on the fundraising side, but the community? The community that surrounds Banning Ranch, they’ve been at it for two decades, calling for this land to be prioritized,” said Rodriguez. “Two decades long of advocacy paid off today with the state really coming in and ... I give my thanks to this administration because they recognized the high value of Banning Ranch.

“It checks so many boxes,” he continued. “It checks equity, public access, habitat protection. It’s a great example of what the governor is looking for in implementing the 30-by-30 goal — protecting 30% of California’s land and coastal areas by 2030.”

Rodriguez said that remediation, which was included in the $97-million purchase price, is expected to occur over the next two years during which the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority is expected to do its public outreach.

“The public process will help delineate [goals]. Do they want interpretive signs? Do they want bird watching? How many campsites should there be?” said Schlotterbeck, who added the agency is expected to also reach out to Indigenous communities for input. “The crux will be of the issue is how to maintain the property for the standards relating to the sensitive species while also maintaining opportunities for public access and engagement on the land. It’s a balancing act.”

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