California Rejects Major Coastal Development

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. (CN) — After a nearly 12-hour hearing, the California Coastal Commission late Wednesday voted 9-1 against a plan to develop the largest parcel of open space left along the Southern California Coast.
     Commissioner Roberto Uranga cast the only Yes vote on Newport Banning Ranch LLC’s proposed 62-acre mixed-use development in Newport Beach.
     Chairman Steve Kinsey and Commissioner Wendy Mitchell abstained. Kinsey was barred from voting because he failed to report a private meeting with the developers, as required by the Coastal Act. Mitchell didn’t attend the meeting due to a scheduling conflict.
     Banning Ranch is a 401-acre property on the Pacific Ocean which includes wetlands and environmentally sensitive habitat that supports rare wildlife, including the California gnatcatcher, burrowing owl and San Diego fairy shrimp. The site has been used as an oil field, and despite degradation from the oil operations, it continues to support wildlife habitat many speakers called “precious” and “special” at Wednesday’s marathon meeting.
     A vote on the project was scheduled for May, but was pulled when developers asked for a postponement so they could review a commission staff report that said only 55 acres of Banning Ranch were developable. In its most recent recommendation, the commission staff said only 19.7 acres of Banning Ranch could be developed, as more space is needed for burrowing owl habitat.
     Commissioners do not have to accept the staff’s recommendation, and can reject it.
     The Banning Ranch vote was closely watched, as the Coastal Commission fired its popular executive director, Charles Lester, in February. Lester was critical of the Banning Ranch project and was popular among environmentalists. The commission has not yet found a new executive director.
     Environmentalists feared that Lester’s firing showed the powerful Coastal Commission was kowtowing to developers, and might “compromise away” the Coastal Act, which it is tasked to enforce. The vote on Banning Ranch was viewed as the most important decision the commission faced since it fired Lester.
     Hundreds of environmental activists wearing green “Save Banning Ranch” T-shirts packed the Newport Beach Civic Center on Wednesday. They told the commission that approving Banning Ranch would violate the Coastal Act by redefining environmentally sensitive habitat.
     Steve Wicke, with the Sierra Club, said his group is fighting “tooth and nail” to keep what little open space is left along the Orange County coast.
     Wicke called Orange County “basically all cement” and said the Banning Ranch fight is “all about lawyers and developers.” He called a new coastal development a “dumb move,” as rising sea level due to climate change could flood the area in a few decades.
     Green T-shirts far outnumbered the Banning Ranch supporters’ blue T-shirts, bearing the message “Clean, Restore, Open.” The slogan referred to a land trust that would manage open space in conjunction with the project.
     Adam Alberti, a spokesman for the Banning Ranch developers, said cleaning up the land alone would cost $75 million. He said the 62 acres where developers want to build would leave hundreds of acres for public access and wildlife.
     Alberti said the staff’s most recent recommendation, that only 19.7 acres could be developed, includes land for streets and other infrastructure, and actually left only about 10 acres for development, which he called not “economically viable.”
     “Any undercutting of the plan will not sustain cleanup, open access and amenities we envisioned for it. We believe the staff report is a de facto denial of the project,” Alberti said.
     The Banning Ranch developers would not consider a pared-down project on less than 20 acres, as recommended by staff, Alberti said. He called the staff recommendation on land needed for burrowing owl habitat “overstated.”
     Land trust executive director Robyn Vettraino said the developers’ plan to mitigate and manage the old oil fields for the burrowing owls is the “best option” for the bird’s habitat. She said the land trust has already begun a community-based restoration project, which includes a native plant nursery and seed collection. Vettraino said the project is based on a Coastal Commission program and the land trust is one of the first groups to use it.
     Restoring Banning Ranch
     Despite the contention, both sides want to restore Banning Ranch, an undeveloped area in one of the wealthiest areas in the country, perhaps in the world.
     Packing the Civic Center Wednesday were representatives from Southern California tribal nations, people who live inland as well as along the coast, young and old – including many who took the day off work. One speaker called the coastal habitat at issue a part of “the California dream,” and the hundreds of people on both sides seemed to agree.
     After more than three hours of public testimony, Vice Chairwoman Dayna Bochco asked those among the more than 400 people who filled out speaker slips to form a line and state for the record their name and their opposition or support.
     Hundreds lined up to speak, and some were unhappy the public hearing was cut short, as many had taken the day off work.
     A man from the Newport Crest homeowner’s association, a development close to Banning Ranch, compared the land to Central Park.
     “That’s Newport’s Central Park. It’s the only open coast on Newport’s coastline. We as a society should not trade precious wildlife that will never be replaced in exchange for concrete and steel,” he said.
     As commissioners pondered their vote, the possibility of litigation lingered, as developers have suggested that denying the project could be considered a taking of privately owned land.
     “My fear of denying the project is we’re basically taking our power out of this and potentially handing it to a judge,” Commissioner Mark Vargas said.
     Commissioner Uranga, who cast the only Yes vote, said he didn’t see how anyone else could afford to buy the land, which he wanted to be “activated,” and used.
     Bochco, who had the last word, said the land has been “battered, bruised and decimated” for decades, and though the developer’s project was “good,” it wasn’t right for Banning Ranch.
     Prospective developers can submit a new project proposal to the commission if they choose. They did not indicate Wednesday whether they plan to.
     The commission meeting will continue through Friday.

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