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Volunteers collect seeds of preservation at Banning Ranch

Volunteers collect seeds of preservation at Banning Ranch
Kathleen Lee, left, and Monica Gadberry participate in a special seed collection event put on by Newport Banning Land Trust to cut prickly pear cactus pads for use on other restoration projects. (SCOTT SMELTZER / Daily Pilot)

Discussions about the importance of preservation, paired with the sound of volunteers clipping cactus pads, nearly drowned out the discordant hum of active oil wells across Banning Ranch on Friday morning.

Robyn Vettraino, executive director of the nonprofit Newport Banning Land Trust, gathered community members to a portion of the Banning Ranch property slated for development to collect seeds. The volunteers filled dozens of buckets with pads cut from cactus plants — coast prickly pears, to be exact — that are likely to be removed by developers.

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Vettraino and her team will dry the pads, stick them in the dirt of a 280-acre plot negotiated as protected habitat, and wait for them to grow.

"Within the next few years we're anticipating a lot of changes here," Vettraino said.

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Portions of the 401-acre Banning Ranch have been operating as an oil field since the 1940s. A large gate bars residents from entering the privately owned property without an escort.

Newport Banning Ranch LLC wants to build 1,375 homes, commercial space and a 75-room hotel on part of the ranch property, an expanse of scrub and grass-covered bluffs and wetlands overlooking the ocean near Pacific Coast Highway and the mouth of the Santa Ana River.

The Newport Beach City Council approved the development plan in 2012, but the Banning Ranch Conservancy, a preservation group, challenged it with a lawsuit that is currently in appeals court.

Next year, the project is expected to go before the 12-member California Coastal Commission, one of the last stops for developers hoping to build on the state's shoreline.

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The aim of Friday's seed collection and similar volunteer opportunities is to "involve local people and help them understand what the property is and why it deserves to be preserved," said Sheri Asgari, a habitat restoration specialist working on the property.

Kristin Hunziker, co-founder of JuJuBe, a Costa Mesa-based company that specializes in reusable diaper bags, participated in the seed collection with some of her staff. Hunziker's office overlooks the sprawling property.

"This is our view every day," she said. "We have a vested interest in the land. Plus, I've never been inside before, so it was great to be able to look around."

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