Dismissal of Coastal Commission Director May Impact Banning Ranch

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By Daniel Langhorne | NB Indy

Opponents of the proposed development at Banning Ranch say they are disappointed with the Coastal Commission’s recent decision to dismiss its executive director but say that the shake-up is expected to have little impact on their fight.

The commission, which is empowered by the Coastal Act as the steward of California’s coast, dismissed Charles Lester on Feb. 10 after hours of testimony from Californians across the state.

“I have great respect for Lester,” said Terry Walsh, president of the Banning Ranch Conservancy. “I think the staff under his leadership did very good work. It wasn’t-pro environment. It wasn’t pro-development. It was pro Coastal Act.”

Walsh, whose organization seeks to preserve the property as open space, remembers Lester as being accessible and intelligent. When he spoke his words were strong yet carefully chosen, Walsh said.

While it is uncertain who will be the commission’s new executive director, Walsh sees Banning Ranch as “pretty late in the game” for he or she to drastically change how the project is being reviewed.

“I don’t think it’s going to fundamentally change what we do,” Walsh said.

Another opponent of the proposed development, Paul Malkemus, founder of Save Newport Banning Ranch, said Lester’s dismissal is indicative of the perception that politicians do not listen to their constituents.

Malkemus said it’s so difficult to get a read on the commissioner’s motivations that it’s concerning whether Lester’s replacement will bend toward pressure from developers.

“The uncertainty is definitely a concern,” he said. “Are they looking for someone that is going to go along with what they want?”

The project’s developer, Newport Banning Ranch LLC, scaled down its proposal after coming before the Coastal Commission in October. Its latest rendition includes 895 homes, 45,100 square feet of retail space, a 750-room coastal inn and a 20-bed hostel. The developers would preserve 323 acres as open space, public parks and parking to access these amenities.

Mike Mohler, senior project manager for Newport Banning Ranch LLC, declined to comment on Lester’s departure from the Coastal Commission.

“We look forward to this upcoming Commission review of the [Newport Banning Ranch] project – a project that proposes oil field cleanup and unprecedented public access and habitat restoration,” Mohler said.

Banning Ranch will be in front of the Coast Commission at its next meeting from March 9 to 11 in Santa Monica.

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