Coastal Commission to decide on plans for park

Citing concerns about endangered bird habitat and wetlands, California Coastal Commission staff members have recommended rejecting Newport Beach's plans for Sunset Ridge Park.

The fate of the 20-acre public sports park near the West Coast Highway-Superior Avenue intersection rests in the hands of the 12 commissioners when they meet Wednesday in Oceanside.

Compared to other parts of town, the city's west side has fewer soccer fields and baseball diamonds, which are both proposed at Sunset Ridge. The facility, which would have sweeping views of the coastline, has been stalled in legal and administrative wrangling.

The commission's central issue is Bluff Road, the park's proposed access way off Coast Highway. While the road would avoid sensitive habitat, it would follow the path of a larger arterial road planned for the adjacent Banning Ranch property.

Commission staff sought an agreement preventing future expansion of the road onto sensitive California gnatcatcher habitat, but the ranch owners declined, and now the city's plans hang in the balance.

Both the city and Banning Ranch developers argue that the commission should focus on the application at hand.

"Our project and our process are completely separate from Sunset Ridge Park," said Newport Banning Ranch spokeswoman Marice White.

Banning Ranch developers are seeking their own approval from the city and will be heading to the Coastal Commission later. White contends that the four-lane Bluff Road would improve access to the coast through Banning Ranch, so she believes the road plans would be likely approved in their larger context.

Overlapping issues between the two development projects have long been a thorn in the city's side.

The commission earlier this year forced Banning Ranch and the city to restore some damaged habitat near the proposed park. The Banning Ranch Conservancy, an environmental group seeking to keep Banning Ranch undeveloped, sued Newport over the park's environmental impact report.

The conservancy contends that the EIR was inadequate because it didn't address the larger 400-acre residential and commercial Banning Ranch development. The two projects' proposed entrance roads are essentially one and the same, the lawsuit contends.

The conservancy is appealing a judge's May ruling against it.

"They are intent on getting their foot in the door for the Bluff Road," said conservancy President Terry Welsh.

The city has proposed a two-lane road that dead-ends into a parking lot. Bluff Road would need to accommodate thousands more vehicles per day, according to a commission report.

City officials contend that the proposed park road location is the most feasible because of traffic flow, road safety and because there is a natural depression in the land.

"It only makes sense to put the park road in a location where there may be a larger road," said Councilman Steve Rosansky, who represents the area. "Why would we want to tear up more of Banning Ranch?"

Twitter: @mreicher

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