Commentary: Newport council rubber-stamped Banning

On a recent night, I attended the grand drama, better known as the Newport Beach City Council meeting ("Still hoping for open land," July 25).

While the stated intention was a public hearing before voting on the Banning Ranch project, the vote's outcome was well known long before the meeting was scheduled because several council members had already gone on record as supporting the proposed development.

In fact, the city has bent over backward to satisfy every need and has spent unknown thousands of taxpayers' dollars working to make sure this project moves forward.

Presented as a win-win for the city, with little, if any, regard for the public's stated preference for the land to be used as open space parkland, the outcome was never in doubt. The council members have long offered this as the only and best option to preserve the open space, that is by developing most of the developable land.

Truth is you don't save open space, by removing open space; once it is gone it is gone. That concept is like protecting an endangered species by hunting the endangered species. The proposal that the city is being gifted so much of the land as open space by the developer is a little disingenuous, as most the land designated for open space is salt marsh that can't be developed anyway. No matter what happens to it, a good portion of Banning Ranch will always be open space.

The relatively small piecemeal patches of land designated as parks in the project will not belong to the public but to the new homeowners association with "public easement for access." Sounds great in theory, but I have seen many associations become less than friendly to the public using their own perceived resources. Indeed, the lion's share of the "active park" part of this proposal, the Sunset Ridge Park project, is on land already owned by the city of Newport Beach.

The picture the city and Newport Banning Ranch LLC painted of Banning Ranch as a degraded parcel of wasteland is also far from the truth. Anyone who has taken the time to walk the property will see only isolated areas of oil well activity. Nature has already done a pretty good job of taking back some of the damaged areas.

"Nature finds a way" is a good line from a great movie that fits here very well.

The city held all the cards but folded like a cheap lawn chair; the developer was the one with the most to lose. Shell-Exxon or their shell company, who have already made millions pumping the oil out of the ground, were already on the hook to clean up the property. Federal laws mandate clean-up of such sites, and the longer the land went undeveloped, the more risk that they would be stuck with the remediation without the possible gains from the development.

So the value of the site clean-up, as presented, is no huge gift to the city. The developer started out planning for 2,400-plus high-density dwellings and happily settled for 1,735 high-density dwellings. It is apparent that throughout this process the developer just played its cards better than our city leaders.

After all this is the city of Newport Beach, one of the richest areas in the state, a premier destination for the world, having in its control the last big contiguous piece of ocean view land between here and Camp Pendleton.

And we settled for what? A glorified Holiday Inn, a strip mall and 60-foot high apartment buildings? Sounds more like (take your pick) Santa Ana, Tustin, Garden Grove; no offense to those fine cities.

The comparison made to the project as "similar to Balboa or Corona del Mar" is laughable. This land could have been developed in a much less dense, more natural manner and the time to do so was on our side. This group of city leaders has failed us again; much like the fiasco of the new Civic Center, this poor choice will be their legacy.

The bottom line is that we always knew this project would be rubber-stamped, there was just too much money involved for it to end up any other way. It now moves on to the California Coastal Commission, where hopefully people of more vision, integrity and fortitude can make a better choice than our own city leaders.

GARY REASONER lives in Newport Beach.

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