To lease or leave be? For one scrubby parcel amid eco-rich environs, that is the question

Newport-Mesa Unified School District owns an 11-acre parcel of land.
An 11.36-acre parcel of land in Newport Beach has been owned by Newport-Mesa Unified School District for decades but never used. Now, officials are determining what to do with the lot.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

While a committee convened to help Newport-Mesa Unified School District decide the fate of an unused parcel of Newport Beach land has specified a preference for potentially leasing the property, conservationists still hope it may be preserved as open space.

The two sides confronted one another Monday as committee members sought public input on whether the district might lease, sell or hold onto the 11.33-acre parcel before making a recommendation to NMUSD’s Board of Trustees.

Adjacent on three sides to the protected 348-acre Randall Preserve (a former oil field known as Banning Ranch), at the terminal points of West 16th Street and Whittier Avenue in Costa Mesa, the land has been in the district’s possession since 1965.

NMUSD is considering what to do with a surplus 11.36-acre property adjacent to the formerly named Banning Ranch.
Newport-Mesa Unified is considering what to do with a surplus property near the 348-acre formerly named Banning Ranch. Those who helped preserve the ranch say the lot should also be saved.
(Courtesy of Newport-Mesa Unified School District)

Upon passage of the California Coastal Act in 1976, the dirt lot — a portion of which is being used by NMUSD to store items inside shipping containers — was zoned so any development would require review by the state’s Coastal Commission on top of the usual municipal entitlements.

For its proximity to Randall Preserve, and for the fact that sensitive animal species have been observed in and around coastal sage scrub and the vernal pools that appear on the property during periods of intense rain, some have been urging the district to retain the property, possibly for educational purposes.

Costa Mesa resident Terry Welsh is president of the nonprofit Coastal Corridor Alliance, which fought for decades and raised millions — including a $50-million commitment from philanthropists Frank and Joann Randall — to preserve Banning Ranch.

A pumpjack on Banning Ranch on the border of Costa Mesa and Newport Beach in 2016.
A pumpjack on the Banning Ranch oil field near the border of Costa Mesa and Newport Beach in 2016. Conservationists helped preserve 348 acres there and now have the same hope for an adjacent lot owned by NMUSD.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Welsh and dozens of environmentalists attended the Banning Ranch Surplus Property Committee meeting Monday at NMUSD headquarters in Costa Mesa to express their views and convey concerns about the possibility of the site being developed.

A letter passed out to committee members and signed by 200 area residents carried that message aloft.

“The Coastal Corridor Alliance (formerly Banning Ranch Conservancy) would be pleased to provide the district with assistance should it wish to pursue an open space route,” the letter read. “We believe the property should be preserved as permanent public open space, should serve as an outdoor laboratory for students and faculty, and offer our assistance to make this happen.”

Committee members, however, approved a list prioritizing leasing the site as a first option, followed by preserving the land as open space and, lastly, selling the parcel, NMUSD spokeswoman Annette Franco confirmed Wednesday.

The Banning Ranch Conservancy was founded in 2008. But with the acquisition of the property, the nonprofit has turned its gaze toward preserving other areas of Orange County.

Jan. 31, 2024

It will be up to the district’s Board of Trustees to decide which course to follow, she said.

“Right now all the options are available,” Franco said. “If the board decided to go with leasing the property they could have multiple options to discuss.”

Welsh said he and others from the Coastal Corridor Alliance will continue to urge committee members and the district to consider keeping the parcel and its ecological assets, intact.

“It’s not over, it’s not resolved,” he said Tuesday. “We’ll continue to advocate for open space, as we always do.”