Sunset Ridge Park application withdrawn by city

Newport Beach city officials withdrew their Sunset Ridge Park application from the California Coastal Commission on Wednesday, after commissioners signaled they wouldn't approve its controversial access road.

The nearly five-hour hearing in Oceanside left many wondering if the park would be built anytime soon.

The city's application became entangled with larger environmental concerns about the proposed neighboring Banning Ranch development. As commissioners raised objections to encroaching on protected bird habitat and potentially illegal brush clearance, they also provided a glimpse into the fraught path ahead for the ranch's developers.

"This isn't about the park," Commissioner Steve Blank said. "It's about the city and a developer wanting a four-lane access road for a 1,375-unit development and a 75-room resort … it's a backdoor approach."

The city's proposed access road follows the same path as the Banning Ranch development's main artery off West Coast Highway, Bluff Road. Because of this, the commissioners were required to consider the future impacts to sensitive wildlife, according to the commission's chief counsel, Hope Schmeltzer.

City officials argued that the applications should be considered separately; Banning Ranch's still has to be approved by the city before the commission hears it. But commissioners appeared to reject that argument.

Nonetheless, most of the commissioners expressed support for the city's efforts to build a baseball diamond and soccer fields in an area sorely lacking youth fields. Leaders from youth sports leagues testified they needed the space.

"It's unfortunate that it's getting caught up in the Banning Ranch concerns," Commissioner Mark Stone said, "but those are legitimate concerns."

Sunset Ridge is proposed for the bluff at the northwest corner of the Superior Avenue-West Coast Highway intersection. Banning Ranch is to its immediate west.

Recognizing that the project could be rejected, Newport Beach officials submitted an alternative plan without the road. That plan would have visitors park in an existing public lot across Superior from Sunset Ridge.

Although youth sports advocates testified that arrangement would endanger children who had to cross a busy intersection, some of the commissioners were willing to approve it. That alternative died, though, by a 6-6 vote.

Then, when the main application was called for a vote, city officials withdrew it so they could modify the plans and bring it back to the commission.

"Saving the park is the most important thing," City Manager Dave Kiff said Thursday.

He said he will consider a vehicle shuttle from the Superior lot to the park, among other ways to gain access. The council would have to approve any major changes to the design.

Besides road concerns, some commissioners criticized the city for cutting brush on the property. At least one biologist has said that the brush, if allowed to grow, could become protected habitat.

Newport officials said they had to trim the brush for fire safety, and that the land's previous owners had been clearing it before the Coastal Act was enacted. Some commissioners were not swayed, and indicated the city might have to further alter its plans.

Twitter: @mreicher

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