Coastal Commission rejects redevelopment project but allows developer to re-submit plans.
- Proposal to develop 401 acres of open land is rejected by a 9-1 vote
- Project’s footprint reduced by 40 percent
- Commissioner Uranga supported the project, stating it would open a blighted area to the public
- Some commissioners still favor development in some form at Banning Ranch
NEWPORT BEACH — In the face of intense media scrutiny, waning public trust and a legislative battle the California Coastal Commission made a decision favoring environmentalists and slow-growth advocates on Sept. 7, voting 9-1 to reject a proposal to develop 401 acres of open land in Newport Beach.
The Banning Ranch redevelopment project has been one of the most closely watched decisions in the commission’s history, especially in light of the way the agency handled the firing of its executive director, Charles Lester, earlier this year. Some feared or believed Lester’s firing was indicative of the commission becoming friendlier to developer interests.
Accordingly many viewed the vote on Banning Ranch’s most recent proposal as an indication of whether the commission would stay true to its mission statement or allow developers to operate with fewer restrictions when executing waterfront projects.
Newport Banning Ranch LLC, which is an amalgam of Aera Energy, Brooks Street, Cherokee Investment Partners and Newport Banning Land Trust, proposed cleaning and remediating soil from abandoned oil operations, building 895 residential units and 12 acres of roads, developing 45,100 square feet of commercial use, erecting a 75-room resort and a 20-bed hostel, creating 5 acres of park, and constructing public trails within the 329 acre Natural Open Space Preserve. Oil operations would remain on 15 acres of the Banning Ranch development.
Battle Won, but War to Continue?
Banning Ranch might still be the litmus test of how the commission moves forward with coastal development plans.
Newport Banning Ranch LLC will be allowed to resubmit plans, along with a $250,000 fee, to the Coastal Commission, so the project is not dead yet. Some commissioners hinted they would be okay with some form of development at Banning Ranch, meaning environmentalists and anti-development groups won a battle on Sept. 7 but the war is not necessarily over.
However a Newport Banning Ranch LLC spokesperson told The Log the company’s future plans are up in the air.
“We’re deeply disappointed in the outcome of the California Coastal Commission Hearing. This was a sad day for those who support cleaning, restoring and opening Newport Banning Ranch to the public,” said Newport Banning Ranch LLC spokesperson Adam Alberti. “It’s too soon to say what comes next, but we are exploring all options available. Despite this setback we remain committed to a clean, restored and open Newport Banning Ranch and are exploring how best to achieve that vision.”
Commission staff informed commissioners just before they voted the state agency could face a lawsuit from either the developer or environmentalists depending on whether the project moved forward or not.
Wide Gulf between Commission and Newport Banning Ranch
While Newport Banning Ranch LLC has made no indication of pursuing a lawsuit against the Coastal Commission the project’s manager told commissioners he disagreed with the agency’s findings.
“We see [the commission staff report] as unrealistic, unachievable and, in all likelihood, unlawful,” Mohler said during the hearing.
Mohler said commission staff’s conditions and recommendations would preclude Banning Ranch LLC, the eponymous development company seeking to convert 401 acres of open land into a mixed-use development, from implementing its oil field cleanup plans.
“[We] believed a workable framework … had been developed with staff from which the commission could consider a revised project that has substantially reduced in scope and intensity,” Mohler said, adding the developer would struggle to convert most of the Banning Ranch property into open space and public recreational access if the commission’s conditions were approved.
Mohler continued the project’s footprint has been reduced by 40 percent since its previous plans were released in October 2015. The developer also proposed removing 276 houses and making adjustments to traffic impacts and water demand.
Most recent plans also called for a hostel offering rooms at $59 per night, free youth programs, a beach shuttle, and attempts to improve the local ecosystem.
Commissioner Mary Shallenberger said a wide gulf existed between what the agency’s staff recommended and what Newport Banning Ranch hoped to include in its project.
“This is a project we have to get right,” Shallenberger said after hundreds of people expressed support or dissent about the proposed Banning Ranch development. “We can’t get just good enough on this one. It is the only intact coastal bluff ecosystem left in Southern California, other than Bolsa Chica.”
She added the Banning Ranch area is also home to the largest concentration of endangered species in all of Orange County and sacred burial sites of Native American tribes.
“There is a lot riding on this. If we don’t have it right, things will be lost forever,” Shallenberger continued.
Door Still Open for Development
Though sensitive to Banning Ranch’s environmental sensitivities Commissioner Mark Vargas said the area is not insulated from all forms of development. The Coastal Act, Vargas said, is nuanced, allowing for development and the environment to co-exist.
“We have to make sure we’re maximizing the protection of coastal resources. There are also a lot of voices that we heard … that want zero growth, and we want to deny the project, and we want nothing on there, it should be 100 percent open space,” said Vargas. “Unfortunately, at least the way I see the Coastal Act, that’s not exactly something we can do here. The Coastal Act is not as black-and-white as some would think; there is a lot of nuance.”
Commissioner Mary Luévano said she hoped whatever ultimately happens at Banning Ranch would be a better result than how Playa Vista — a hybrid enclave just south of Marina del Rey juggling commercial and residential uses with protected wetlands — developed.
“There are too many issues here that seem unresolved, or at least, still, require more attention,” said Luévano.
One commissioner prevented the vote rejecting Newport Banning Ranch’s proposal from being unanimous. Commissioner Roberto Uranga said the proposed project would open up a blighted area to the public.
“This project initially was one that opened up a blighted area, opened up an area that is fenced off, that is inaccessible, that has no value to anyone other than to the inhabitants that live there – the burrowing owls and every other animal that lives there,” said Uranga. “Nobody gets to enjoy [the land] because nobody gets to see it.”
Uranga believed commission staff and Newport Banning Ranch could have found a middle ground to push the proposed project forward. Denying the project, as what actually happened, would effectively end Newport Banning Ranch’s pursuit of developing property it owns, he added.
“I think there’s a project there,” Uranga said. “I was hoping … we can continue this discussion [and] get to that ‘yes’ point, because there is one there.”
Commission Vice Chair Dayna Bochco said the Banning Ranch project is not the best fit for the land where it is proposed.
“It’s actually a wonderful project – someplace else,” said Bochco. “This particular piece of property is so sensitive. It has been battered, it has been bruised, [and] it has been decimated for 70 years.”
Old Oil Field or Open Space?
With the Coastal Commission’s September meetings held in Newport Beach it seemed fitting the city’s leadership and staff would address the commission of their position on Banning Ranch.
Newport Beach Mayor Diane Dixon said Banning Ranch in its current form is an eyesore and the proposed project would morph the large chunk of unoccupied land into a desirable and accessible destination.
She described Banning Ranch as a “400-acre decaying oil field” amidst one of the largest recreational harbor areas on the West Coast.
“The Newport Banning oil field is not an environmental gem. It’s a brown field riddled with aging oil field infrastructure. This isn’t a so-called ranch, it’s an old oil field,” Dixon told commissioners.
Newport Beach City Council member and former mayor Ed Selich, who first came across plans for Banning Ranch’s development in 1995 when he served on the local Planning Commission, said the most recent proposal was consistent with the city’s General Plan.
“It’s the least environmentally impactful and most responsible plan that’s ever been brought forth by the development team,” Selich told commissioners. “It’s a balanced plan. It’s an opportunity for us to realize a long awaited restoration of the 400 acres of land that’s been an oil production.”
Both Dixon and Selich pointed out the project has been reduced in size several times over since plans were first introduced in the 1990s.
Steve Ray of the Banning Ranch Conservancy said the Coastal Commission should not pay attention to the developer’s threats of litigation and leaving the oil fields untouched if their demands are not met.
“What they see as an oil field, we see as open space,” Ray told commissioners. “If they want to leave it as open space for the next 150 years, we’ll buy that.”
A zoologist told commissioners, both at the meeting and in a 12-page letter to the state agency, allowing the Banning Ranch development to move forward would come at the expense of the burrowed owl, which can be found at the undeveloped area.
Local resident Stan Rosenthal said Banning Ranch is to Newport Beach what Central Park is to New York.
“It’s the only open space left on our wonderful coastline,” Rosenthal told commissioners. “We as a society should not trade precious wildlife that will never be replaced for concrete and steel.”
Commission Chair Steve Kinsey recused himself from the Banning Ranch hearing. Kinsey announced his recusal a few months ago after news reports stated he failed to file ex parte communications he had with the Banning Ranch developer.
The Sept. 7 vote came days after a law proposing to eliminate ex parte communications from Coastal Commission deliberations was rejected in the State Assembly.