Coastal Commission hearing on Banning Ranch project postponed

A California Coastal Commission hearing scheduled for Thursday on a hotly debated residential, commercial and park development proposed for Newport Beach’s Banning Ranch has been postponed.

Commission staff had recommended approval of the project with conditions that would further reduce its footprint. But developer Newport Banning Ranch LLC wrote in a news release Friday afternoon that some issues remain unresolved and that it needs more time to review staff’s proposal.

Newport Banning Ranch will continue to work with commission staff with the goal of the project going before the Coastal Commission within 90 days, according to the release.

“We look forward to having the project before the entire commission and are confident that our plan provides for successful repurposing of the property and balancing the requirements of the Coastal Act with the needs of the community,” senior project manager Michael Mohler said in a statement.

After an eight-hour hearing in October, the 12-member commission, which has final say over development along California’s coast, sent Newport Banning Ranch back to the drawing board to make significant cuts to the project’s footprint and scope.

In November, the developer sent the Coastal Commission a scaled-back plan that proposes 895 homes, a 75-room hotel, a 20-bed hostel and 45,100 square feet of retail space on about 62 acres of the 401-acre Banning Ranch. About 310 acres would be preserved as natural open space with public trails, plans show. The land is adjacent to the Santa Ana River overlooking West Coast Highway.

Newport Banning Ranch originally proposed 1,375 homes, 75,000 square feet of retail space, a hostel and several parks on about 95 acres. That plan was approved by the Newport Beach City Council in 2012.

However, Coastal Commission staff expressed opposition to the proposal during the October meeting and in a report, noting that the land is home to “sensitive coastal species” including the threatened California gnatcatcher, along with a rare vernal pool system and one of the few remaining significant areas of native grassland.

Staff and commissioners suggested at the time that they likely would favor “less intense” development. They also cited merits of the project, including opening the land for public use and condensing oil operations that have long occupied the site.

After the October hearing, staff ecologists revisited the site and remapped the environmentally sensitive areas. The maps reduced the number of seasonal pools and purple needle grass but expanded the California gnatcatcher habitat. In the end, the amount of sensitive habitat had declined, increasing the amount of land available for the proposed development from about 18 acres to 55, according to a staff report.

Still, staff is recommending conditions that would eliminate a section of the main road and some residential units.

“Although the applicant has revised its proposal, the current proposal extends well beyond the boundaries of the developable area identified by staff,” the report states. “The current proposal would still extend far into, and thereby destroy, large swaths of [environmentally sensitive habitat] and wetlands identified on the site, and it therefore continues to be inconsistent with the resources protection policies of the Coastal Act.”