Two-pronged Banning Ranch approach

The Newport Beach City Council has opened a second front in the legal fight over the Newport Banning Ranch development.

Council members agreed in closed session Tuesday to appeal an Orange County Superior Court order related to their earlier decision to greenlight development on a swath of old oil fields in West Newport.

Ed Selich, Keith Curry, Nancy Gardner and Mike Henn voted in favor of challenging the ruling, City Attorney Aaron Harp said after the closed session. Mayor Rush Hill and council members Leslie Daigle and Tony Petros were absent.

A judge agreed Jan. 15 with environmental advocacy group Banning Ranch Conservancy that the city violated its general plan during the process of approving the development, which would include residential, resort, commercial and open space components on a 400-acre parcel.

"We're not surprised," conservancy Executive Director Steve Ray said. "We would have expected them to appeal, and we look forward to having the original decision upheld in the appeals court."

In its lawsuit, the conservancy alleged that the city failed to "work with the appropriate state and federal agencies to identify wetlands and habitats to be preserved," as its general plan stipulates.

Specifically, the judge ruled that the city didn't assess the Banning Ranch site adequately with the California Coastal Commission.

"Staff has concerns with this interpretation," Newport Beach Community Development Director Kim Brandt said at the council's Jan. 28 meeting.

The council voted that night to start the process to amend the general plan and clarify the section with which the conservancy took issue. Proposed changes will go to the Planning Commission for consideration before they are brought to the council.

With its Feb. 20 meeting canceled, the Planning Commission will not vote on the matter before March.

Selich noted that he and Gardner each led a citizens group that helped draft the general plan.

"If anyone can be qualified to clarify what we meant, I think both of us can," he said.

At the Jan. 28 council meeting, Ray likened the move to school kids changing the rules of a game to win.

"Now you have a problem with that law, and now you want to change that law," he said then. "It's easier, quicker and cheaper, folks, just to follow the law."

At stake is the home of many plants and animals, the conservancy has said.

The appeal together with the amendment forms a "dual path" for the city to fight the court's decision, Harp said Wednesday.

"You don't want to give up on your rights to appeal a decision after it was decided," he said of the time constraints around when an appeal can be filed. "I think the gist of it is the council disagrees with the trial court's decision."

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