Coastal Commission Delays Look at OC Beach Project

     NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. (CN) — The California Coastal Commission has postponed a hearing on the proposed development of the largest parcel of coastal land in Southern California until later this summer.
     The hearing was originally scheduled to take place Thursday, but developers of the Newport Banning Ranch Project asked the commission for a postponement on May 6 so they could have more time to respond to commission staff’s recommendations.
     Under the Coastal Act, project applicants are allowed a one-time postponement in order to respond to staff recommendations, according to commission spokeswoman Noaki Schwartz.
     A new hearing date for the Banning Ranch project has not yet been scheduled.
     The current proposal is a scaled-back version of what developers presented to the commission this past fall. Staffers told Banning Ranch developers last October to make significant cuts to the project’s footprint and scope planned for the 401-acre property.
     The site has been used for oil production since the 1940s, with peak production in the 1980s. The Banning Ranch developers brokered a deal with the oil field operators to take care of cleaning up the brownfield site before construction would begin on the mixed-use development project.
     Despite its use as an oil field, commission staff noted that the Banning Ranch site “continues to support an incredibly unique array of sensitive coastal species and habitats” including the California gnatcatcher, which nests and forages in the Banning Ranch area. A “very rare” vernal pool system also supports the endangered San Diego fairy shrimp, while the wetlands are home to burrowing owls and covered with rare purple needlegrass grassland.
     The property is also the site of numerous historically and culturally significant Native American sites, according to the staff report.
     In its current iteration, the project will include 895 residential units, 45,100 square feet of commercial and retail space, a 75-room hotel and 20-bed hostel. About 310 acres of open space would be untouched, with oil operations remaining on only 15 acres if the project gets the go-ahead from the commission.
     Commission staff believes the new proposal “does not address many of the identified site constraints” and “remains inconsistent with the resource protection policies of the Coastal Act.” The staff notes the revised proposal reduces grading and the number of residential units and avoids some gnatcatcher use areas in the region, but would still impact 15 acres of wetlands on the site.
     Following the October hearing, staff made numerous site visits and remapped sensitive areas they argue should not be developed. However, they upped their original proposal that only 18 acres be developed and instead identified 55 acres which they believe can be developed.
     In a feisty note with their report, commission staff pointed out it is not their responsibility to ensure developers make money on their projects.
     “While the applicant may argue that, given the significant costs of developing the site, the amount of development that could occur consistent with staff’s recommended conditions does not provide an economically viable project, neither the Coastal Act nor the state and federal constitutional provisions prohibiting takings require that this commission guarantee developers a profitable return on their investments,” the staff wrote.
     Environmental activists, including members of the Sierra Club, believe the commission will reschedule the Banning Ranch hearing for the July 13-15 meeting in San Diego. The group plans to petition the commission to hold a special hearing on the project in Newport Beach so residents and those who wish to provide public comment won’t be precluded from doing so if the commission hosts the hearing 90 miles away.
     The commission’s planned vote on Banning Ranch follows the controversial ouster of popular executive director Charles Lester this past February. Lester was critical of the Banning Ranch project, saying developers ignored staff recommendations to scale back the project to be less ecologically invasive.
     Environmental activists were also critical of Lester’s removal, saying more pro-development commissioners wanted to get rid of Lester to make the path for development projects along the coast much easier.
     The commission is scheduled to discuss the selection process for finding Lester’s replacement on Friday.
     Sierra Club activists plan to host a rally at 8 a.m. Thursday, before the second day of the commission meeting gets underway.
     The Newport Banning Ranch developers did not return an email request for comment.

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