Planning Commission OKs Banning Ranch plans

The Newport Beach Planning Commission voted to approve the Banning Ranch development plans Thursday night.

In a nearly five-hour public hearing, dozens of opponents and fewer supporters spoke passionately about the proposed 1,375-home housing development near West Newport.

The approved project would be on 400 acres of bluff tops, marshes and active oil fields,. About half of the land, much of which is unfit for development, would be preserved as natural open space.

The commission voted 6-0 to approve the project, with Commissioner Fred Ameri absent.

"It's not without concern for the environment that I vote for this project," said Planning Commission Chairman Michael Toerge. "It's for my support of the environment that I vote for this project."

Toerge's comments were met with groans from protesters.

Environmentalists at the meeting from the Banning Ranch Conservancy challenged the development's environmental impact report, saying it failed to properly account for protected species and used faulty noise and air pollution measures.

Steve Ray, the conservancy's executive director, said afterward that the group was considering legal options.

Meanwhile, Newport Banning Ranch developer Michael Mohler said he is planning to take a vacation after five months of meetings and hearings, although the road ahead is long.

The next stop for the project is City Council approval, potentially in mid-July, and then it would still have to be approved by the California Coastal Commission and other regulatory agencies.

One of the issues the council may address is the project's hotel. Commissioners on Thursday said the inn could be replaced by residences, but not for three years after the project is approved.

They also debated the affordable-housing plan. City policies require that new projects make 15% of the total residences affordable to people with "moderate" incomes, whether or not the affordable homes are built on-site. Newport Banning Ranch promised to build at least half of the units on the property.

Some in the audience said they welcomed more affordable housing in Newport Beach, and others lauded the project's potential economic stimulus effects for Westside Costa Mesa. Some also praised the trails and parks that would be available to the public.

Christina Danks, a Huntington Beach resident, said she uses parks adjacent to Banning Ranch and is looking forward to the developer building trails.

"To open it up further would just be such an asset," she said.

Some neighbors weren't as enthusiastic. A group of residents from the Newport Crest condominiums, which abut Banning Ranch, hired their own environmental consultant to pick apart the environmental impact report.

They contended that the air quality and noise studies used faulty measures or failed to document projections properly.

Representatives from the environmental impact report's author, BonTerra Consulting, defended their methodology.

"We stand behind the findings of our report," said Dana Privitt, a company principal.

Many of the residents cited technical issues, while some just said how they felt.

"Why would the city create 10 years of misery for residents living on the periphery?" asked Olwen Hageman, referring to the long construction schedule.

Planning commissioners had to decide that the project's public benefits — including a $40-million development fee to be paid to the city, oil remediation and acres of parks — would outweigh the traffic and pollution affecting the neighboring communities.

"I wish everybody's life would be better when this would be all said and done," said Commissioner Larry Tucker, "but some people are going to be affected."

Twitter: @mreicher

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