Sunset Ridge Park construction can begin

Newport Beach announced Thursday that it can begin construction of Sunset Ridge Park in West Newport following a state Supreme Court decision not to hear an appeal trying to stop it.

The decision ends a three-year legal battle between the city and the Banning Ranch Conservancy, which is seeking to block the proposed residential and commercial development of old oil fields on the border of Newport and Costa Mesa.

The conservancy maintained that the city's environmental impact report should have included the adjacent Banning Ranch, which the group sees as an area intermingled with the park.

The battle centered on the construction of an entrance road that would be used both for Banning Ranch, if it's developed, and Sunset Ridge Park.

The conservancy, which wants to buy the 400-acre property to keep it as open space, says the road would be the first step toward developing Banning Ranch, which would include 1,375 homes, a hotel, commercial properties and parks.

An Orange County Superior Court judge first sided with the city in May 2011. Then an appellate court panel of three judges in December said the city was right in excluding Banning Ranch from the environmental impact report.

"The EIR's project definition properly excluded the neighboring development, which is not a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the park," the panel opined. "The two are separate projects with different proponents, serving different purposes."

The California Supreme Court decision was a victory for the city's youth, said Newport Beach Mayor Keith Curry.

"I think the residents and the taxpayers, and most importantly the young people, won in this case," he said. "They were being held hostage by this very cynical group of obstructionists."

In August, the California Costal Commission approved the park after city leaders presented a plan to restore the California gnatcatcher habitat elsewhere in the city.

Curry said he hopes to break ground on the park project this year. It should be completed by 2015. The 14-acre park would have a baseball diamond and two soccer fields, among other amenities.

Members of the conservancy did not return requests for comment Thursday.

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