Planners review Banning Ranch

The Newport Beach Planning Commission was looking for suggestions and final tweaks to development plans for Banning Ranch, which it will vote on next month, but it didn't get anything so nuanced Thursday night.

The people who came to speak at the meeting were either broadly supportive or flatly opposed to plans to put 1,375 homes on 401 acres of former oil fields west of Newport Beach.

Costa Mesa resident Terry Koken called the occasion one of the "cusps of decision in history," comparing it to the Battle of Thermopylae, the Maccabees, the Emancipation Proclamation and Pearl Harbor.

Commission Chairman Michael L. Toerge was less expansive, seeing the meeting as a chance to straighten out whether or not there would be a way to use reclaimed water for the project.

"I was really looking forward to getting project input," he said after public comments. "Didn't get too much tonight."

Commissioners discussed timetables for park construction, whether to allow a planned hotel to be converted to residential units, and whether an economic analysis might have overstated a particular minor rental revenue stream.

Because the project would have an environmental impact, the City Council will have to approve a statement of overriding considerations to go forward, according to a staff report.

The main favorable consideration that the commissioners pointed to was the 251 acres of open space and 51 acres of parkland included in the project.

Reed Royalty, president of the Orange County Taxpayers Assn., said that Banning Ranch "is kind of a mess, as you know, but the developers will pay $30 million to clean it up" and preserve 75% of the land as open space.

Resident Keith Banning said the parks were badly needed in West Newport. He cited his experience booking fields for Little League.

"The biggest problem we had was getting enough field time for the kids to play," he said. "That was a full-time job."

The Banning Ranch Conservancy laid the groundwork for a lawsuit at the meeting, reading a complaint so long that finishing it required four consecutive speakers to use their three-minute allotment. And that was just what they had to say about one meeting last month.

Their main point was that the commission had failed to properly notice a vote on a draft environmental impact report, which a city attorney denied.

Steve Ray, the group's executive director, said afterward that the group was preparing to sue if the commission doesn't bring the environmental report back for another vote done properly.

Terry Welsh, president of the conservancy, said the project was too dense, comparing the 1,375 housing units approved to the numbers at five other major county coastal developments of recent years, where approved units ranged from 118 to 635.

He said that it wasn't necessary to rely on a developer to clean up the fields.

"Nature will do 90% of the restoration of Banning Ranch," he said.

He and others pointed to Measure M funds as a possible alternative source of clean-up money.

Commissioner Larry Tucker said that theoretical alternatives weren't the commission's job.

"That really doesn't have anything to do with our process," he said. "We're in the process of reviewing the land use application."

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