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Coastal Commission to meet Wednesday to consider Banning Ranch proposal

An oil pump operates beside blooming cactus plants at Banning Ranch. Oil operations have long occupied parts of the 401-acre coastal land.
An oil pump operates beside blooming cactus plants at Banning Ranch. Oil operations have long occupied parts of the 401-acre coastal land.
(File photo | Daily Pilot)

The fate of Banning Ranch in Newport Beach could be decided Wednesday after years of debate among the land’s developer, the city, state officials and environmentalists, all of whom hope to have a say in the future of the coastal spread.

During a meeting in Newport Beach, the California Coastal Commission — whose 12 members have final say over development along the coast — will consider a proposal by Newport Banning Ranch LLC to build 895 homes, a 75-room hotel, a 20-bed hostel and 45,100 square feet of retail space on 62 acres of the 401-acre property.

The land, some of which has been occupied by oil operations for decades, is said to be the largest undeveloped coastal property in Southern California.

As part of its proposal, Newport Banning Ranch has set aside about 329 acres as preserved, natural open space with public trails.

However, Coastal Commission staff is recommending approval of only about a third of the proposed development. In a report released in late August, staff indicated it would sign off on developing about 19.7 acres that fall outside of areas identified as environmentally sensitive habitat, particularly for burrowing owls.

Jonna Engel, a naturalist with the California Coastal Commission, leads a field trip for commissioners, staff members and the public of the proposed development site at Banning Ranch in Newport Beach in June 2014. The Coastal Commission is scheduled to consider the residential and commercial project Wednesday.
Jonna Engel, a naturalist with the California Coastal Commission, leads a field trip for commissioners, staff members and the public of the proposed development site at Banning Ranch in Newport Beach in June 2014. The Coastal Commission is scheduled to consider the residential and commercial project Wednesday.
(File photo | Daily Pilot)

Newport Banning Ranch representatives have said staff’s recommendation amounts to a denial of the project and have vowed to challenge the report’s conclusions during Wednesday’s hearing.

Michael Mohler, senior project manager for Newport Banning Ranch, said staff’s plan would allow development on only about 10 acres after buffers from environmentally sensitive habitat and fire safety are taken into consideration. He said the project likely would not be economically viable if the commission follows staff’s recommendation.

“We have invested years and spent millions on planning, engineering and working with Coastal Commission staff,” Mohler said. “Our proposed plan is based on over 20 years of site research and provides appropriate habitat for the one burrowing owl that has appeared on the site for no more than three to four weeks annually. This is a de-facto denial of the project that will result in the oil field remaining in place for decades to come.”

The back and forth among the developer, state officials and those seeking to preserve Banning Ranch as open space has been an arduous process for all involved.

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

A view of Banning Ranch overlooking West Coast Highway.
A view of Banning Ranch overlooking West Coast Highway.
(File photo | Daily Pilot)

But after an eight-hour hearing last October, the commission sent the developer back to the drawing board to make significant cuts to the project’s footprint and scope.

Commissioners and staff 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.

In May, staff recommended approval of the development with a series of conditions to further reduce its footprint, but Newport Banning Ranch opted to postpone a hearing before the commission, arguing that some issues remained unresolved and that it needed more time to review the staff’s proposal.

At the time, commission staff identified about 55 acres of the site as having potential for development.

The latest reduction in the recommended buildable area boiled down to a foraging area for burrowing owls, which have been present at Banning Ranch for decades.

In May, staff members determined that the owls’ wintering burrows were an environmentally sensitive habitat area, so they assigned a buffer to it. However, according to the most recent staff report, they did not identify the owls’ separate foraging habitat as a protected area. Biologists said that without protecting the foraging space, protecting the birds’ habitat was basically pointless.

“Thus, even with their burrow habitat protected and designated [environmentally sensitive habitat area], there would be no food source and the owls would be extirpated from the site and from the region,” commission staff wrote.

Staff also is recommending conditions to eliminate a proposed thoroughfare known as Bluff Road, which would run north-south through the property to connect West Coast Highway with West 17th Street.

Staff noted that the plan for Bluff Road tries to minimize effects on two arroyos on the property but still would have a direct impact on wetland habitat and other sensitive areas. Staff wrote that the project instead could be supported by existing roads around the site.

Steve Ray, executive director of the Banning Ranch Conservancy — a nonprofit group that has long butted heads with the developer and the city over the land — said that while he’s pleased staff has incorporated the group’s arguments about preserving foraging area for burrowing owls, the development’s footprint is still too large.

Ray said there are vernal pools and wetlands at Banning Ranch that staff has not identified as environmentally sensitive habitat.

“Those 19.7 acres they have delineated would shrink considerably if those areas were included,” he said. “We still hold with the original recommendation that there should be no development onsite.”

The Coastal Commission meeting will begin at 9 a.m. Wednesday at the Newport Beach Civic Center, 100 Civic Center Drive.


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