NEWPORT BEACH — The largest stretch of untouched land in coastal Orange County is back in the news again, thanks to a legal battle reaching California’s highest courthouse. When the dust finally settles the fallout of this battle will not be contained to Newport Beach. How developers, city councils and port/harbor districts pursue waterfront developments up and down the California coast, for all intents and purposes, could well be determined by the outcome of this case.
Justices of the California Supreme Court heard oral arguments Jan. 4 in Banning Ranch Conservancy’s lawsuit against the city of Newport Beach and Newport Banning Ranch LLC. The lawsuit alleges Newport Beach’s City Council illegally allowed plans to develop Banning Ranch to move forward.
At the core of the claim is whether Newport Beach’s actions were consistent with its General Plan and zoning laws. The court’s ruling, likely due in March, would affect how zoning laws are interpreted in future coastal development decisions. Will zoning laws enacted to protect coastal areas and environmental habitats ensure balanced development? On the other hand, would such protections fall by the wayside to give local, regional and state agencies enough flexibility to approve projects based upon current circumstances?
Those who have followed the Banning Ranch story closely may remember a California Coastal Commission decision in September 2016, when a proposal to develop the large chunk of open land at Newport Beach’s northwestern edge was rejected by commissioners.
Banning Ranch Conservancy, in its lawsuit against Newport Beach, said California’s Coastal Act requires environmental protections – through zoning laws or otherwise – to be enforced liberally.
“The courts are enjoined to construe [the Coastal Act] liberally in light of its beneficent purposes. The highest priority must be given to environmental consideration in interpreting the statute,” Banning Ranch Conservancy’s lawsuit against Newport Beach and Newport Banning Ranch stated. “One of the Coastal Act’s key purposes is to provide ‘heightened protection’ to what are called environmentally sensitive habitat areas.”
Interpretation of the Coastal Act is quite relevant when it comes to Banning Ranch, which was bogged down in quite the public process since plans to develop the 401-acre property located along Coast Highway and less than one mile away from the Pacific Ocean were first proposed in the 1990s.
Newport Beach voters approved changes to the city’s General Plan, a zoning document directing a municipality’s overall vision and direction, in 2006. One provision of the updated plans called for Banning Ranch to be preserved as open space.
Such legal protections came into question after the Newport Beach City Council green-lit a project to bring nearly 1,400 homes to the former oil field and current environmentally sensitive habitat area.
The council’s decision in 2012 has been the subject of a legal battle ever since, culminating in the current California Supreme Court case challenging the legality of Newport Beach’s decision.
Attorneys for Newport Beach and Newport Banning Ranch argued the City Council acted fully within the scope of the General Plan and did not violate any laws in approving a project proposing to bring 1,375 residential units, 75,000 square feet of commercial uses and 75 hotel rooms to the former oilfield space.
“The General Plan contemplates the owners of Banning Ranch could pursue entitlements for development even while the city explores acquisition. The city spent several years seeking funding to buy Banning Ranch but was unsuccessful,” attorneys for the city and developer wrote in a legal brief.
“In 2008 the landowners … submitted a development proposal. Under the proposal, 303.7 acres – more than 75 percent of the property – would remain as open space,” the legal brief continued.
The city, according to its attorneys, performed all the due diligence necessary to ensure all environmental protections were honored before allowing a proposed development to move forward.
It will be a few weeks before we find out how this dispute is resolved, but the decision of California’s seven Supreme Court justices will certainly affect the way city councils, supervisorial boards and perhaps even state agencies deliberate development proposals – along the coast or otherwise – moving forward.
Coastal development plans are already in play at harbors in Marina del Rey, Redondo Beach and San Diego. A dilapidated waterfront hotel across the street from Alamitos Bay Marina in Long Beach could soon be replaced with a revitalized mixed-use project. Officials just broke ground in December 2016 on a waterfront development bringing boat slips, public dock space and residences to Ventura Harbor. A planned revitalization of Dana Point Harbor appears to finally be underway after ground was broken there in June 2016. Plans are also in play to redevelop waterfronts in San Pedro and Oxnard.
Boaters should keep in regular touch with city council members, county supervisors, the California Coastal Commission and others to ensure the final product remains consistent with established zoning laws, particularly those aimed at guaranteeing protections of environmental habitats and resources.
Interestingly enough there is at least one precedent in Orange County where local interests hoped – but ultimately failed – to protect a large chuck of land from real estate development and “suburbanization.”
City of Dairyland becomes La Palma
In 1955 Orange County welcomed the city of Dairyland into its fold, one of many cities to incorporate between 1953 and 1965. Dairyland became La Palma nine years later, and with the name change also came adjustments to the young city’s General Plan.
Dairyland’s first days as an incorporated city were defined by its legalized lack of development. The city was actually zoned to keep Dairyland farm-friendly – real estate development within city limits was prohibited, according to historical documents.
“With suburban growth pressures threatening operations in the mid-1950s, the dairymen and ranchers sought to protect their businesses and in 1955, incorporated as the new City of Dairyland,” an official document about La Palma’s zoning history stated. “Following incorporation, City founders drafted zoning regulations that excluded housing developments, thus allowing them to protect their agricultural investments.”
Things changed in 1964, when Dairyland became La Palma and city officials allowed for real estate development to occur, bringing 15,000 new residents and a town center to north Orange County. (Local voters did approve of the changes, according to city reports.)
“By the mid 1960s, the local ranchers realized that their land had far more value as potential housing sites than as dairies and egg farms. With the help of a real estate consulting firm, City leaders crafted a General Land Use and Circulation Plan for the City of Dairyland that was “intended to show the sub-areas and neighborhoods suitable for development and the various types of basic urban land use.” The plan would allow for the local population to increase from its 1964 tally of 629 residents to 15,690 residents (and no cows) once fully developed.
A community profile in the city’s 2010 comprehensive Master Plan update acknowledged La Palma switched from a protected agrarian community to a bedroom community a few miles north of Disneyland.
“[The city’s] hopes [in 1955] were for the area to remain dominated by cows, chickens and strawberry fields,” the city document from 2010 stated. “Eventually the lure of prosperous housing developments changed their minds, and in 1965 the city drafted a master plan with the addition of residential, commercial and industrial areas.”
La Palma’s history begs the question: could areas protected by zoning laws today be changed entirely to make way for profitable real estate development?
Redondo Beach Waterfront
Newport Beach’s Banning Ranch is not the only portion of Southern California’s coastal zone where zoning laws and future development are at the heart of a contentious public process.
A large developer hopes to convert a dilapidated stretch of Redondo Beach’s waterfront into a revitalized mixed-use commercial village where boaters, residents and visitors could all congregate.
CenterCal’s Waterfront project, which is anticipated to cost at least $300 million, has a few vocal opponents who say the revitalization is out of tune with a voter-approved zoning ordinance.
Local voters approved Measure G in 2010, which allowed for 400,000 square feet of additional development in Redondo Beach’s harbor area. More than 500,000 square feet of new development could also take place along Catalina Avenue, which is the first major north-south thoroughfare just east of King Harbor.
Opponents of the Waterfront revitalization project claim Measure G protects the King Harbor area from overdevelopment. A local grassroots group is currently campaigning to have Measure G clarified through a ballot initiative – known as the King Harbor Coastal Access Revitalization and Enhancement, or CARE, Act.
Waterfront opponents specifically hope Redondo Beach’s zoning laws would be clarified to require view protections, define open space requirements, limit the heights of commercial buildings and parking structures as well as protect access to coastal recreational activities.
City officials released a report in November 2016 stating the Waterfront revitalization project would suffer a major blow if CenterCal walked away from the project – which could happen if voters approve the King Harbor CARE Act during the upcoming March 7 election.
A lot can happen during the next few months and years but it definitely appears a perfect storm of development, local interests and zoning laws has landed in Redondo Beach, paralleling similar events in La Palma more than 50 years earlier.
As policymakers consider planned projects in Downtown San Diego, at Long Beach’s Alamitos Bay Marina and all across Marina del Rey (among other locations) on the horizon, it is important for boaters to speak up about how these developments take shape.