Conservancy takes aim at Banning Ranch

More than 125 residents and community activists gathered in Costa Mesa to discuss Banning Ranch, a proposed development in West Newport that opponents argue will burden humans and wildlife.

The Thursday night meeting at the Neighborhood Community Center was organized by the Banning Ranch Conservancy, a grass-roots group that has long fought the project, which calls for 1,375 homes, commercial space and a small hotel within portions of the 400-acre, privately owned property.

Terry Welsh, president of the conservancy, called Banning Ranch the "largest parcel of unprotected coastal open space remaining in Orange County." The group aims to make the area into a nature preserve that would abut Talbert Regional and Fairview parks to the north, a wetlands area and Newport Beach's Sunset Ridge Park to the south, and other wetlands west in Huntington Beach.

Welsh and others contended Thursday that the development would permanently harm the landscape, which contains the San Diego fairy shrimp, an endangered species, and other notable birds and plants.

A spokeswoman for the developer, Newport Banning Ranch LLC, countered the conservancy's assertions that the project would harm the environment.

"The plan we have is going to take an active oil field with no habitat protection and create a permanent preserve that enhances the habitat that's out there," said Marice White, who was not present at the conservancy's meeting. "It will create tremendously more habitat than what currently exists there today."

Of the 400 acres, White said, 252 will become "permanent, natural open space," and an additional 52 acres will be active-use recreation areas, like grassy parks.

She noted that the courts have upheld the project's environmental impact report, which details the developer's intention to preserve the vernal pools that contain fairy shrimp.

Still, Welsh told meeting attendees, the amount of housing proposed there "dwarfs" other recent developments in Newport Coast and Huntington Beach's Bolsa Chica.

In Bolsa Chica, 5,000 homes were originally proposed; the number later dwindled to 379, he said.

"It just didn't happen by accident," he said. "It happened because the community organized."

Banning Ranch's developers noted that two other under-construction coastal projects, Marblehead in San Clemente and the Dana Point Headlands, had much less open space than what's proposed in Newport.

Costa Mesa native Kevin Nelson, who now lives in San Clemente, noted that Banning Ranch is still a working oil field, but those operations have a relatively small effect on the area.

"Even with that oil extraction, this place is still wild," he said.

Newport Banning Ranch LLC is still working with the California Coastal Commission staff on the project, White said. Once staff deems the development's application complete, it will go before the commission for a vote, possibly by this fall, she said.

White said state law requires that a variety of on-site monitors, including biologists and Native American representatives, be present when development begins.

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