Traffic and noise resulting from the proposed Banning Ranch development would exceed acceptable levels and the effects may be unavoidable, according to the draft environmental impact report released Friday.
Residents on the west side of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa would experience congestion at more than seven intersections, and the increased traffic would cause a high level of ambient noise, the report forecast.
But impacts to sensitive wildlife could be mitigated by restoring and preserving some of their plant habitats, according to the report.
These findings set up a likely protracted battle with environmentalists and neighborhood groups over the 400-acre residential and commercial project. Meanwhile, conservationists are slowly working to acquire the land for open space.
The Banning Ranch Conservancy asked its members to read the large document and submit comments to the city if they have expertise in a given area. Though he hadn't read much of the report yet, the group's president, Terry Welsh, said he was skeptical.
"It tends to downplay the impact to the environment," Welsh said, adding that the proposed development "clearly intrudes into wildlife habitat."
The 1,375-home project would be south of the Talbert Nature Preserve and east of the Santa Ana River, and would include some sensitive habitat slated for restoration or development. The developer, Newport Banning Ranch, also proposes a 75-room hotel and 75,000 square feet of retail space.
If Newport Banning Ranch sets aside more than half of the land — much of which is ill-suited for development anyway — for wetlands restoration, habitat conservation or preservation, then the project could keep its biological impacts below acceptable levels, the report says.
Scientists identified several species within the project area that qualify as threatened or endangered, including the San Diego fairy shrimp and the coastal California gnatcatcher.
When it comes to quality-of-life issues, such as light pollution, traffic and noise, Banning Ranch could become an immovable problem for residents in Newport Crest and those west of the industrial areas in Newport and Costa Mesa, the environmental consultants found.
The study mentioned a few intersections expected to become congested, including: Newport Boulevard and 17th, 18th and 19th streets; Newport and Harbor boulevards; and Superior Avenue and 17th.
While Costa Mesa could install traffic signals and take other measures to lessen the traffic impacts, Newport Beach — the city reviewing the project — cannot force its neighbor to make the improvements. Nor could it force Newport Crest residents to make changes to their neighborhood that might lessen the impact.
The report was authored by Costa Mesa-based BonTerra Consulting. As proscribed under state law, Newport Beach hired the consultants and the study is paid for by the developer.
Members of the public have 60 days to submit comments about the report. Dave Webb, deputy public works director for Newport, said he hopes the City Council can review the project by March.
Representatives from Newport Banning Ranch could not be reached Friday for comment.