Activists halt Newport Beach housing proposal

Sunday, December 15, 2013
Terry Welsh

In November, activists opposing a plan to build more than 1,300 homes in Banning Ranch in Newport Beach won a legal victory that reverses the city's project. It's been a long-term environmental battle -- and here are some of the milestones in the campaign led by Chapter and local activists..

Banning Ranch is located at the mouth of the Santa Ana River, between the cities of Newport Beach, Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa. At 400 acres, Banning Ranch is the largest parcel of unprotected coastal open space remaining in Orange County. 

There has been an oil operation on Banning Ranch since the 1940s, and for this reason it has escaped the dense residential development characteristic of much of the Orange County coast. The oil operation has largely wound down in recent years, with the vast majority of the wells abandoned. Because of the relatively small amount of human intrusion (only a small crew of oil workers enter and exit each day) wildlife has flourished on Banning Ranch.

Banning Ranch is contiguous with publicly-owned open spaces to the southwest (Army Corps of Engineers Wetlands and Semeniuk Slough), southeast (Sunset Ridge Park), and north (Talbert Regional Park and Nature Preserve).  All of the above open spaces, along with Fairview Park in Costa Mesa, the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy properties, and assorted smaller parcels, are planned to comprise the future Orange Coast River Park (ORCP), a project long-championed by Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks.  The inclusion of the entire Banning Ranch in the future ORCP would provide important connectivity and wildlife corridors.  Banning Ranch would indeed be the "crown jewel" of the future ORCP.

The 'ecological staircase'

Banning Ranch is one of the few remaining coastal ecosystems containing an “ecological staircase” consisting of a coastal mesa, bluffs, arroyos and coastal salt marsh.  The variety of special status species on Banning Ranch, including federally-listed and state-listed species, is unequaled anywhere in Orange County. The coastal mesa on Banning Ranch contains a large vernal pool complex that is the only federally-declared critical habitat for the endangered San Diego Fairy Shrimp in all of Orange County. Cactus wrens and California gnatcatchers nest in the cactus-scrub and sage-scrub habitat on Banning Ranch. Burrowing owls, considered to be extirpated throughout Orange County (except for a small population at Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station), regularly winter on Banning Ranch.

The proposed development includes 1,375 homes, a 75-room resort hotel, 75,000 square feet of commercial space, a 4-lane 50 mph roadway (Bluff Road) traversing Banning Ranch from 15th Street to PCH plus arterial highways, and an active sports park comprised of 6 tennis courts, soccer fields, baseball fields, a skateboard park, and 2 parking lots with over 125 parking spaces. Banning Ranch also contains documented remnants of an important pre-historical Native American settlement.

Banning Ranch is private property. The surface development rights are owned by Newport Banning Ranch LLC (NBR), while the mineral rights and oil operation are owned by a separate entity. While the majority of Banning Ranch is unincorporated, a small portion is within the city of Newport Beach, and therefore the entire Banning Ranch is considered to be within “sphere of influence” of Newport Beach.

Activists go to work

The Sierra Club Banning Ranch Park and Preserve Task Force was formed in 1999 with the goal of preserving the entire Banning Ranch as open space. The Banning Ranch Conservancy, an independent nonprofit land conservancy, was formed in 2008. The mission of the Banning Ranch Conservancy is "the Preservation, Acquisition, Conservation and Management of the entire Banning Ranch as a permanent Public Open Space, Park, and Coastal Nature Preserve." The Banning Ranch Conservancy works closely with the Sierra Club.

In 2006, the voters of Newport Beach approved a General Plan amendment that prioritizes the preservation of the entire Banning Ranch as open space.  The amendment also allowed development of Banning Ranch in the case where preservation is not possible.  Soon after the 2006 vote, NBR began pursuing development plans for 1375 homes, a 75-room hotel, and 70,000 square feet of commercial space on Banning Ranch.

In July 2012, despite widespread community opposition and very strong evidence demonstrating the significant negative impacts of the proposed project, the Newport Beach city council approved the proposed 1375-home project, along with its EIR.  The Banning Ranch Conservancy promptly filed a lawsuit challenging the project under General Plan law and under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). 

In early 2013, NBR submitted their development plan to the California Coastal Commission (CCC) as part of a Coastal Development Permit (CDP) application.  It is clear from the CCC staff's initial review that there are many significant issues that need to be resolved, and that the proposed project is not consistent with the Coastal Act.  The CDP application has twice been deemed incomplete.

The legal decision

In November 2013, an Orange County Superior Court judge ruled that the Newport Beach city council did not follow its own General Plan in approving the project. Specifically, the judge ruled that Newport Beach did not coordinate with appropriate state and federal agencies in identifying wetlands and habitat to be preserved on Banning Ranch. The ruling reverses the Newport Beach city council’s approval of the proposed Banning Ranch project.

The case for preserving Banning Ranch as open space is stronger than ever. Orange County will benefit by including the entire Banning Ranch in the future OCRP.

The Sierra Club Banning Ranch Park and Preserve Task Force meets on the third Wednesday of the month, and the Banning Ranch Conservancy meets on the fourth Wednesday. 

Both groups meet at the Mesa Verde United Methodist Church in Costa Mesa. Call (714) 719-2148 for more information.

Visit the Banning Ranch Conservancy website at www.banningranchconservancy.org   or email at info@banningranchconservancy.org

Terry Welsh, M.D. is chairman of the Sierra Club Banning Ranch Park and Preserve Task Force and president Banning Ranch Conservancy.

Photo captions: Top, Banning Ranch, looking south toward the ocean; bottom, vernal pool on mesa at Banning Ranch.


Hello Terry Welsh and All,

I have a more moderate and much needed alternate plan of action.

OC, specifically west OC, needs more affordable housing not more upper end and I wonder if an agreement could be made for a senior & disabled green/and walking wounded/ elderly accessible project maybe 300 units max built multi story but at angles so natural winds still go through - that might include raised gardens and a jacuzzi and big porches/patios as part of living areas and good ole eat in kitchens vs dining areas. some 1s but also 2 beds for aides . Those who can could volunteer at the park there could be a community center for all residents to learn about the area/nature and wher local adults and kids can come and learn and do related crafts too. Seems that could get a lot of support and help a lot of us most in need many left homeless and while helping protect the local flora and fauna too. A road carefully placed through wiht any important animals insects and plants relocated maybe mostly by volunteers first - to divert end 55 fwy traffic would still be wise over all for the gas consumption/pollutions and local uses.

What do you all think?

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