Coastal Commission raises doubts about Banning Ranch

In their first critique of the Banning Ranch development plans, California Coastal Commission staff members found that the proposed project would be unlikely to meet state standards.

Banning Ranch would likely destroy sensitive habitat, develop on wetlands and otherwise trip up state law governing coastal development, according to a review of the draft environmental impact report (EIR) submitted to Newport Beach city planners.

One of the last large undeveloped parcels in the region, Banning Ranch has been the subject of much debate. Preservationists have criticized the owner’s plans, while others argue that the proposal is the best chance to clean decades of oil drilling pollution. Now, the powerful Coastal Commission has planted its first marker in the long approvals process.

Its November review found that “the proposed development would result in the elimination of habitat supporting sensitive species” and “the fragmentation of habitat on the site” would be inconsistent with the Coastal Act, the main body of law that governs development near the state’s coastline.

A representative from the developer, Newport Banning Ranch LLC, was not immediately available for comment Thursday.

According to the draft EIR, scientists identified several species within the project area that qualify as threatened or endangered, including the coastal California gnatcatcher.

One of the premises of the development plans is that more than half of the land would be set aside for wetlands restoration, habitat conservation or preservation.

But the commission letter emphasizes that sensitive habitats have to be avoided, and cannot be disturbed and then replanted elsewhere.

A proposed access road from West Coast Highway would likely be rejected because it would threaten sensitive habitat, the letter states. In November, the commission nearly rejected the city’s application for the adjacent Sunset Ridge Park because of the same reason, but the city withdrew its application.

Besides coastal sage scrub and other habitat for birds, the wetlands would also likely be threatened, the letter says. The developer should reevaluate which areas count as wetlands, the commission review recommends, because Newport Banning Ranch LLC may have mischaracterized some areas.

Scientists have also identified the San Diego fairy shrimp, a protected species, on the 400-acre property

“It appears that development is proposed within wetlands,” the letter says, adding that “the proposed project would result in the elimination or degradation of wetlands on the subject site.”

The commission letter questioned other aspects of the plans, including legal technicalities, the adequacy of archaeological testing and the project’s hotel plans. It said the developer should evaluate demand for low-cost accommodations.

Banning Ranch plans include 1,375 homes, a 75-room hotel and 75,000 square feet of retail space.

The Newport Beach Planning Commission and City Council are scheduled to hold public hearings on the development in March and April.

Twitter: @mreicher