Last-Ditch Stand Against SoCal Development

     NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. (CN) — Tensions ran high Thursday as the California Coastal Commission heard from environmentalists who oppose an Orange County mixed-use development the commission is set to vote on this fall.
     The commission was slated to vote on the Newport Banning Ranch project Thursday, but developers last week asked for the hearing to be postponed so they could review a commission staff report that recommended that 55 acres of the 401-acre Banning Ranch site were developable.
     Commission Chairman Steve Kinsey spoke to the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce Thursday morning before the commission met. He said “carefully planned future development” required a “balancing act” between maintaining coastal resources and public access to the coast.
     Kinsey said commission votes reflect staff recommendations, despite recent uproar over the commission’s rejection of its staff’s October 2105 recommendation to kill the Banning Ranch project. Since then, Kinsey acknowledged, he’s “become a bit of a lightning rod.”
     The Banning Ranch Conservancy, an environmental group formed 17 years ago to fight Banning Ranch, held a news conference Thursday where about 100 supporters showed their disdain for the project.
     Executive director Steve Ray told the crowd the conservancy’s goal is to buy Banning Ranch “at a fair market price” and turn it into a nature preserve.
     Calling the area an “ecological staircase” where every animal and plant plays a part in maintaining a healthy ecosystem, Ray said it would be a “travesty to destroy.”
     “The developers are afraid of coming in front of you, the public. They also counted heads and realized they don’t think they have enough votes from commissioners yet,” Ray told the crowd holding a sea of green “Save Banning Ranch” signs.
     Conservancy president Terry Welsh said that if Banning Ranch is approved it will be the “largest project built along the coast in recent memory.”
     “The wildlife is exceedingly rare. It’s one of the last remnants of the type of habitat that used to be very common along the coast,” Welsh said.
     Much of Banning Ranch has been classified an environmentally sensitive habitat area. It is home to many native wildlife and plant species such as gnatcatchers, burrowing owls, purple needlegrass, San Diego fairy shrimp and other species that are found only along the California Coast.
     Welsh has spent nearly two decades fighting development of the largest parcel of land left along the Southern California coast, and told his supporters they should do the same.
     “Make a pledge to yourself you’re going to spend the rest of your lives saving Banning Ranch,” Welsh said. “Leave this for a kid in the future who, like me, grew up playing in the hills. This is a place to go that is yours and it’s theirs to play.”
     When the second day of the commission meeting got under way, Kinsey said public comment would be extended beyond the usual 30 minutes, so as many people who wanted to address the commission would be able to. The public spoke then for just over an hour.
     Citing concerns raised during the first day of the commission meeting, Kinsey told the packed room at the Newport Beach Civic Center the September Coastal Commission meeting will be held in Orange County so residents there can speak.
     Angela, a representative from the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous People, criticized the commission for not including Native Americans in the decision-making process for Banning Ranch and other developments along the coast, though developments are proposed for their ancestral land which has documented sacred sites. She told the commission it was violating an executive order from Gov. Jerry Brown requiring agencies to consult with Native nations on projects that affect their historical sites.
Commissioner Effie Turnbull-Sanders asked the staff to look into creating policies and procedures to work with California’s Native Americans.
     “Please prioritize this so it doesn’t just end up as another report,” Turnbull-Sanders said.
     Ray told the commissioners that its only viable staff recommendation was its recommendation last fall to kill the project. When the commission told its staff to go back to the drawing board and they came back with a recommendation that 55 acres of Banning Ranch were developable, they commission in effect was redefining the Coastal Act.
     “Mother Nature didn’t go out and take off her natural resource skirt and say I’m not going to wear that anymore. You cannot compromise away the Coastal Act,” Ray said.
     UC Irvine law student Robert Moddelmog, who grew up in Newport Beach, said the commissioners should prioritize the wildlife on Banning Ranch as they did when they voted to ban orca breeding at SeaWorld last year.
     “I wish the commissioners cared as much about the burrowing owls as they do about killer whales,” Moddelmog said.
     Robyn Vettraino, executive director of the Newport Banning Land Trust, a stewardship created in partnership with the developers, said more than 300 acres of restored natural open space will be set aside once the development gets under way.
     “We aren’t just talking about a regional vision for open space, we are helping create it,” Vettraino said.
     The land trust plans to create hiking and biking trails with public access, and work with high schools on education programs in the Costa Mesa area, Vettraino said.
     The commission is expected to vote on Newport Banning Ranch at its September meeting.

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