Newport council approves Banning Ranch development [Updated]

(Don Leach)

The developers of Banning Ranch won approval from the Newport Beach City Council on Monday night after hours of protests and a surprise announcement of an anonymous donation to the land conservancy.

In a 6-0 vote, the council approved 1,375 homes, a small hotel, commercial space, parks and open space on 400 acres. Councilman Rush Hill abstained because of a potential financial conflict of interest.

“We’re pleased with the decision,” said Mike Mohler, managing director for Newport Banning Ranch LLC, the developer. “It has been a long, long process.”

While the developers would still need approval from the California Coastal Commission and other regulators, adoption from the city is key. Not only is it the first major hurdle, but Newport’s approval essentially ensures future homes would get valuable Newport Beach addresses.

The ranch land is mostly unincorporated and would need to be annexed.

“It’s a home run for residents of Newport Beach, Costa Mesa and surrounding communities,” Councilman Steve Rosansky, who represents the Banning Ranch area, said before the meeting.

Residents and local business owners came Monday to give their own perspectives both for and against the project. The dozens who protested the development cited concerns about its effects on protected species and neighboring residents.

“The City Council has the responsibility to protect the residents of Newport Beach,” said Rod Hageman, 80, who lives in the Newport Crest condominiums adjacent to the ranch.

Newport Crest residents would suffer some of the greatest impacts, such as more light and noise pollution, according to the development’s environmental impact report.

About 30 people lingered in front of the City Council chambers before the 6 p.m. meeting, exchanging concerns. The Banning Ranch Conservancy had called for a large rally, bringing signs and posters.

After two hours of public comments, most opposed the project, while roughly a third of the speakers supported it.

“This is going to allow for open space, growth and vitality,” said Chip Stassel, a Newport Beach businessman who praised the developer’s offer to preserve or restore roughly half of the land.

The city’s general plan prioritizes that the ranch be kept as open space. That scenario, however, requires the land owners to sell the property, and sufficient private and public funds have not yet been identified to buy it.

A Newport Beach resident pledged $5 million toward buying and preserving the land, the Banning Ranch Conservancy announced during the meeting.

The donor, who asked to remain anonymous, said in a phone interview to the Daily Pilot that he is an 82-year-old retired stockbroker and commercial real estate investor who lives on Lido Isle.

“Conservancy of open space has always been a passion of mine, and here is something right in my backyard,” the donor said before the special meeting.

Preservationists are now hoping others will also be willing to chip in to save the area from development.

“We’re hoping that other people who we are talking to will now be motivated to make the same kind of commitment to help save this incredible resource,” Steve Ray, executive director of the conservancy, said before the meeting.

A city consultant pegged the property’s market value between $138 million and $158 million in 2008.

Mayor Nancy Gardner, a longtime environmentalist, said before the meeting that she would support conservation, but the money to purchase and remediate the property hasn’t been identified.

“We hired a consultant to go out and look for money,” Gardner said. “They all agreed. You have a developer who is willing to give you 50%. Go for it.”

Twitter: @mreicher