Future direction of Coastal Commission hinges on Banning Ranch

NEWPORT BEACH — Environmentalists and developers continue to bark at each other under the bright lights of the California Coastal Commission. The fate of California’s coast could hang in the balance of whose bark ultimately wins the day.

How a planned development at Newport Beach’s Banning Ranch ultimately shapes up will help environmentalists and slow- or no-growth advocates regain some of the trust lost in the state agency when Charles Lester was fired from the commission in February.

Alternatively those same groups could lose faith in the system altogether if Banning Ranch’s plans, as currently proposed, remain unchanged or is altered only slightly.

How the Banning Ranch project plays out in the next two to three months is of great relevance to boaters.

Several projects, for example, are proposed along the Port of San Diego’s waterfront. One project is bringing a large hotel to the Chula Vista bayfront. Other development projects are proposed at Shelter Island and downtown San Diego, all requiring Coastal Commission approval.

If a future decision on the Banning Ranch proposal leans in favor of the developer, perceived or otherwise, then the public’s distrust of who influences the commission will persist. How commissioners shape the final plans of Banning Ranch will alter the perceived or actual reality of whether developers influence the Coastal Commission’s decisions at the expense of the agency’s mission.

You see the Coastal Commission is on shaky ground right now. Banning Ranch is the first major test for the group of 12 commissioners who voted to ouster Lester less than 100 days before the Banning Ranch project appeared on the commission’s May agenda.

While a decision on the project’s plans was postponed dozens of speakers showed up to Newport Beach City Hall to chime in on the development project. The 401-acre site near Coast Highway and Upper Newport Bay is considered by many to be the largest plot of undeveloped land in Coastal Orange County, hence very valuable to developers.

The project proposes to balance hundreds of residences, a hotel and retail space with an open space preserve. Developing portions of Banning Ranch could help the developer clean up an oil field there.

Naturally environmentalists and slow- or no-growth advocates argue a greater effort must be made to preserve Banning Ranch’s two vernal pools and rare native habitats. They want as little development on the Banning Ranch land as possible.

Various news reports leading up to the Coastal Commission’s May meetings indicated the project as currently proposed does not satisfy groups on either side of the fence.

Yet the bigger issue is transparency and trust. The Coastal Commission claims its mission is to protect and enhance the California coast for future generations. Members of the general public believed Lester, during his tenure as executive director, was fulfilling the commission’s mission. His ouster, which was voted on behind closed doors and not fully explained to the public once decided, helped, at best, create a perception the commission would make it easier for development growth along the California coast at the expense of the agency’s mission.

Fueling the distrust and perceived backdoor dealings was Coastal Commission Chair Steve Kinsey’s confession last month he did not properly document his recent interactions with Banning Ranch developers.

Several news outlets reported Kinsey’s acknowledgment of failing to report certain ex parte communications with developers. All commissioners must publicly report when they directly communicate with a party associated with a project and has an interest in its outcome. The communications can be phone calls, emails, private meetings or any other contact made outside the context of a public meeting. Details of the communication must be filed with the commission’s executive director within seven days.

There were news reports earlier this year claiming a commissioner was given tickets to a U2 concert ahead of a planned commission vote. Commissioners were voting on a private residence being built on the California coast by one of the band’s members.

All the while Gov. Jerry Brown had little to nothing to say about Lester’s ouster, causing some corners of political observers and commentators to theorize California’s top executive favored the easing of development regulations along the state’s coast.

If commissioners and state officials want to regain the public’s trust and avoid being perceived as favoring private development over the public good then they have to become more transparent. Otherwise boaters and the public at-large will continue to question whether projects like RIDA Development by Chula Vista Harbor or the handful of marina upgrades proposed at Marina del Rey, among others, are unduly influenced by developers and at the expense of coastal access and protection.

One step in the positive direction was the Coastal Commission’s rejection of a previous iteration of the Banning Ranch proposal. Commissioners rejected plans for 1,375 homes in late 2015 – though Lester was still serving as executive director at the time.

Last month’s vote on a scaled down version of the Banning Ranch project was postponed. The commission could revisit a vote later this year but the vote postponement is another cautiously optimistic result. Only time will tell whether commissioners move forward a plan balancing development and environmental interests.

Yet another potential step in the right direction was State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson’s legislative proposal in March to ban ex parte communications among coastal commissioners.

“In the wake of the firing of Dr. Lester, it is important that we do all we can to restore the public’s trust in the Coastal Commission,” Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) said in a statement after Senate Bill 1190 (SB 1190) was introduced. “This bill will level the playing field between big-moneyed interests and those without such financial resources remove the possibility of backroom decision-making or the perception that this is occurring, and help ensure that decisions are made more openly and transparently.”

Some argue in favor of ex parte communications, stating commissioners need to interact with developers and other interested parties to gain as much information about a project proposal as possible. The heavy volume of materials associated with each individual project, combined with how many proposals the commission votes upon during its three days of meetings each month, makes it difficult to impossible to meticulously deliberate each matter in front of them.

Alternatively banning the practice of ex parte communications means it might take longer for the commission to arrive at decisions – which is not a bad outcome. So be it if it takes a few extra months (or even years) to deliberate a project but transparency and trust in the process is gained along the way. Sometimes the slowness of government and bureaucracy can be a good thing, especially when it comes to balancing competing interests.

For the Record: The Log was contacted by the California Coastal Commission’s PIO in reference to news reports claiming a commissioner was given tickets to a U2 concert ahead of a planned commission vote. According to an Los Angeles Timesarticle written by Steve Lopez, Commissioner Mark Vargas said “he paid for his own food, lodging and transportation, and for tickets to the U2 concert he attended the day he met with Evans.”

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In this section you will find resources and supplemental information on what you can do to Take Action. Submit additional information or tips on this issue to editor@thelog.com

Take Action

Get in touch with the following contacts to voice your opinion on this topic.

  • State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson’s offices: Capitol, 916-651-4019, Santa Barbara, 805-965-0862, or Oxnard, 805-988-1940
  • Assembly Das Williams (co-author of SB 1190) offices: Capitol, 916-319-2037, Santa Barbara, 805-564-1649, or Ventura, 805-641-3700
  • Mike Mohler, represents Newport Banning Ranch: Mike@newportbanningranch.com. Mohler is Banning Ranch’s senior project manager and Chief Operating Officer of Brooks Street, a real estate company managing about $1.5 billion worth of real estate projects
  • Coastal Commissioners (email, phone numbers): coastal.ca.gov/roster.html
  • Information about SB 1190: leginfo.legislature.ca.gov.