Coastal Commission Pulls Plug on Beach Development, for Now

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. (CN) – The plan to turn an oil field on the Southern California coast into a housing project – as proposed to the California Coastal Commission last year – is effectively dead, but some commissioners only agreed to kill with an eye toward resurrecting a different version down the road.

The commission voted 8 to 1 on Thursday to adopt revised findings regarding its decision this past September to deny approval to Newport Banning Ranch LLC, which sought to develop a coastal oil field that also serves as vital habitat for endangered species and contains vestiges of California’s vanishing coastal wetlands.

Despite the impassioned pleas of Banning Ranch’s lead counsel Steve Kaufmann, who repeatedly said the adoption of revised findings would preclude his clients from pursuing a project that he characterized as replete with coastal access and environmental benefits.

“These revised findings do not accurately reflect your discussion following the September meeting and do not reflect the basis of your denial,” Kaufmann said during his presentation to the commissioners at the commission’s regular monthly meeting.

Kaufmann said the commissioners had noted they lacked pertinent information regarding the burrowing owl, an endangered species that some scientists say use the expansive Banning Ranch property as a breeding ground, and whether the property was culturally significant for Native American tribes indigenous to the area.

“The draft of the revised findings does not reflect those deliberations and they preempt any future meaningful review of this property,” Kaufman said, adding that the revised findings appeared to indicate the commissioners gave a broad-based denial of the project on several factors that were not cited or considered.

Commissioner Mark Vargas, the sole dissenting vote against adopting the revised findings, said there was a significant gap between what the commissioners said during the September meeting and what staff presented on Thursday.

He voted to deny the project in September in hopes that “we can have our staff work with applicants’ staff to find the most appropriate project possible.”

However, commission attorney Chris Pederson said adoption of the revised findings did not necessarily prevent applicants from bringing new information that may prompt the commission to reconsider its decision or bring an altogether new project configuration forward.

Revised findings is a process the Coastal Commission engages in after the denial of a project to solidify the specific findings upon which the commission, a quasi-judicial entity, based its decision.

While Banning Ranch fared poorly on this particular day, commissioners were not shy about encouraging the developers to try again.

“I’d much rather staff and the applicant get together to work on a project that is brought back which would get more support from this commission than get into arguments over the actual findings,” said Commissioner Gregory Cox, who is also a San Diego County supervisor.

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, continues to support wildlife habitat many speakers called “precious” and “special” at Thursday’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.

The developers say such a dramatically slimmed down project is not economically viable. They have long touted the access benefits, including a 7-mile trail network, remediation of former oil sites, affordable housing and a youth hostel.

The property would also host approximately 900 high-end homes and condominiums. Some estimates peg the project’s worth – on prime coastal real estate in the heart of affluent Orange County – at a billion dollars.

Perhaps the stakes are why the battle between conservationists and developers has waged on for more than 20 years and shows no sign of abating.

Thursday’s Coastal Commission meeting was held in Newport Beach, also in Orange County.

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