City, Banning Ranch owners agree to restore gnatcatcher habitat

The California Coastal Commission released a report this week that found the owners of Banning Ranch and the city of Newport Beach, among others, are responsible for the destruction of California gnatcatcher habitat.

They have agreed to restore more than three acres of coastal sage scrub on a bluff above West Newport, in an area where the threatened birds reportedly once lived.

Also, Southern California Edison and one of its contractors have agreed to pay a $300,000 fine for clearing the land and storing construction materials there, according to the commission.

"We're aiming to create a pretty large block of gnatcatcher breeding grounds," said commission enforcement analyst Andrew Willis. "That's pretty critical with a threatened bird species."

Removing plants and altering the land by dumping gravel and other building materials, as an Edison contractor allegedly did in this case, requires a coastal development permit. The damaged area was in three separate places — all of them are on Banning property, and one partially on property Newport Beach owns.

One of the cleared sections is next to a planned access road for the city's Sunset Ridge Park, a 13.7-acre parcel with two soccer fields and a baseball diamond. Restoring the habitat on that land won't directly affect the park's plans, said Assistant City Atty. Leonie Mulvihill.

"It achieves a resolution for the Coastal Commission, as well as allows the park process to continue to proceed," she said.

Still up for negotiation, though, is a "buffer zone" between the access road and the restored area. Often, such "environmentally sensitive habitat" requires some distance between it and roads, or other development. Those talks will probably happen when the city's application for Sunset Ridge comes to the Coastal Commission, the city and state officials said.

The Banning Ranch Conservancy, a group working to preserve Banning Ranch as open space, sued Newport Beach over the environmental documents for the access road in April. Its lawsuit is unrelated to the Coastal Commission action.

Newport bought the land from Caltrans in 2006, after the violations took place. Still, the state held the city accountable.

"It's disappointing for the city to have had to expend resources," said Mulvihill, "but as a public agency we wanted to respond."

The commission report says the clearing took place in 2004, when construction contractor Herman Weissker Inc. used the area to store materials for a utility project. Riverside-based Weissker was installing underground Edison electrical lines somewhere off site.

Out of the three damaged areas, a biologist deemed two gnatcatcher breeding and foraging grounds. Those have to be replanted with coastal scrub, while the third has to just be cleared of non-native plants. Also, Newport Banning Ranch and the city must plant 2.5 acres of coastal sage scrub somewhere else to make up for the damage.

All construction equipment and materials have to also be removed from the affected areas.

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