The Newport-Mesa Unified School District years ago tried to sidestep any environmental controversy over the proposed Banning Ranch housing development in Newport Beach.
After all, the district has no real say in whether the project will go forward, Deputy Supt. Paul Reed said.
Newport-Mesa owns just a sliver of land the developer would need to widen a road to handle increased traffic that would be generated by the 1,375 new homes proposed for the area near the border of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa.
But as interest in and opposition to Banning Ranch’s development has grown, a fence the district erected next to the property has pulled school officials into a small piece of the environmental battle and elicited a chiding from the California Coastal Commission.
In December, the district built a chain-link fence around a little more than 11 acres of property it owns at the end of Whittier Avenue, adjacent to the proposed 400-acre project.
The fence cuts through the habitat for a rare burrowing owl, one of many rare species in Banning Ranch, local environmentalists say.
“Burrowing owls, like their name suggests, live in burrows,” said Terry Welsh, president of the Banning Ranch Conservancy. “The fence went up really close to a couple of areas where they are known to burrow.”
Costa Mesa resident Cindy Black has observed the birds, she said. She saw one days before the fence went up.
Black and Welsh have both campaigned to keep all of Banning Ranch open space.
The conservancy has sued to try to stop the development, which was approved by the Newport Beach City Council in July.
“It’s the environmental story of this generation,” Welsh said. “It’s like the Bolsa Chica of Newport Beach, in a way.”
Reed said the school district’s fence went up precisely because of such intense interest around the development. He said he wanted to avoid any liability stemming from people walking through the district’s property next to the site. And as the deal has progressed, so has the foot traffic.
“It is not the safest area; it is fairly wild,” Reed said.
The district had anticipated push-back from the conservancy and other development opponents and tried to shield the school district from it in 2011.
“I never like putting the school district as the target of something over which it really can’t control the outcome,” Reed said.
That November, the school board approved a land swap with the developers pending final approval of the project.
It would give the developers the space needed to widen a road for increased traffic and keep enough room at the Whittier Avenue site to build a school in the future.
At the time, one school board member objected to making the agreement so early in the development process.
“We’re giving all of our leverage to the developer when we don’t need to,” Katrina Foley said at the school board meeting where the plan was ultimately approved on a 6-1 vote.
The idea was to take the school district out of the process early, Reed said, in anticipation of the controversy.
“I can tell you that when there are oppositioned projects of this sort, the opposition attempts to use the forum of the school board — takes over the school board agenda to try to get the school board to not approve the allowance of the roadway because they want to block the project, and so on and so forth,” Reed said at the time. “Yet the school board really has no say in the development.”
But the district stumbled into a controversy of its own with the 2,000 feet of fence. Black and Welsh contacted the Coastal Commission when it went up.
“We did not anticipate that a chain-link fence was development,” Reed said.
Nevertheless, Coastal Commission staff contacted the district shortly after its construction to make clear that a permit should have been requested.
While Banning Ranch’s developers await approval from the Coastal Commission, Newport-Mesa is waiting for instruction from the agency about what to do with the fence now that it’s there.
“If we’re directed by a state agency — take your pick — to undo something that what we’ve done, then certainly we will comply,” Reed said.