Postponing Newport Banning Ranch on the California Coastal Commission agenda this week didn’t stop a large number of opponents from rallying at the Newport Beach civic center and speaking their mind during the meeting.
About 100 people attended the rally and even more packed into council chambers for the meeting.
“We want to save Banning Ranch,” said Steve Ray, Executive Director of the Banning Ranch Conservancy, the lead group opposing the project.
Commissioners were scheduled to hear and vote on the project at their Thursday meeting, but the applicant, Newport Banning Ranch, LLC, was a granted a postponement.
NBR wants to take time to fully understand the staff report and “potentially refine the recommendation that will ultimately go before the commissioners,” noted Michael Mohler, Senior Project Manager for Newport Banning Ranch.
“The staff report is complex and a number of issues remain unresolved,” Mohler said. “NBR feels additional time is needed to fully understand the staff report and to resolve a number of outstanding matters.”
It’s been postponed before, Ray countered. The applicant claims they need more time to study the staff report, but it’s more likely that they don’t want it held locally and they didn‘t have the support or majority of votes from the commissioners, Ray said.
“They expect us to study it within that same period of time, but they can’t do it, even though they have a fully paid staff and we‘re just a group of volunteers,” Ray said. “Banning Ranch is not being heard today because the developers are afraid of standing in front of the public.”
The controversial project has had a long, back-and-forth schedule with the Coastal Commission.
In October, CCC staff recommended the commission reject the project. Instead, they voted to postpone their decision and hear the project again. The application was then withdrawn because of time constraints, the CCC executive director was dismissed, and finally NBR re-submitted a revised version of the project. Coastal staff flipped their position and recommended approval of the scaled-down plan.
The most significant change was a reduction of the residential units from the previously proposed 1,375 units down to 895. Another major change is the increase in “developable area” from roughly 18 acres up to approximately 55 acres.
The 401-acre proposed project would also include a 75-room resort hotel, 20-bed hostel, 45,100 square feet of commercial/retail space, 10.7 acres of parks, public trail network, and a 310-acre nature preserve on the property. Oil operations would remain on 15 acres.
Now, Banning Ranch has been postponed until the September meeting, which is scheduled to be held in Eureka, nearly 700 miles away. However, the October meeting is scheduled to meet in the South Coast L.A./Orange County area, so opponents of the project asked the commission to switch the locations of the two meetings. The project could still go before the CCC in September, but it would be close enough that those interested in attending could reasonably do so.
Coastal Commission Chairman Steve Kinsey confirmed that they have directed staff to look into swapping the locations.
Newport Banning Ranch LLC is looking forward to going before the Commission in the upcoming months, Mohler said.
“(We) are confident that our plan provides for successful re-purposing of the property and unparalleled public access,” Mohler said.
They continue to work with CCC staff on the permit process, Mohler noted.
Conservancy officials also feel that the developer asked for a postponement because they didn’t have enough support from commissioners to get approval.
“If they were confident they had enough votes the hearing would have been held,” Ray said. “The fact that their confidence level is not satisfactory to them that’s a good sign for us.”
This is just another way to try and work out approval for the “colossal” project, added Conservancy President Terry Welsh.
“The applicant is trying every trick they can to get that 55 acres to expand,” Welsh said.
But the postpone does present some new challenges, he noted.
“They’re going to have a few more months now to hammer away at (CCC) staff and bring on every consultant money can buy and every attorney and just keep arguing and arguing,” Welsh said.
Despite that the project has been postponed and the Commission didn’t officially discuss the project on Thursday, a number of people spoke during public comment, all in opposition of the project. Speakers mentioned the importance of carefully following the Coastal Act, consider future generations, traffic, water usage and quality, and more.
Kinsey also spoke at Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce’s monthly Wake Up! Newport meeting was held earlier Thursday in the Friend’s Room at the library.
It’s a big project, Kinsey said during the morning meeting. The scale of the project is what makes it significant, he added, and the commissioners have to take their time to read and understand the project and the staff report.
“There will be 700 pages of documentation for that one applicant, that’s not a responsibility you can skate through,” Kinsey said. “You have to put your time in.”
He also mentioned that the conversation about Sunset Ridge and how to provide better and safer access will resume once Banning Ranch is resolved.
There are strong reactions to the project on both sides of the issue.
“Without project approval, Newport Banning Ranch will remain an unsightly, operating oil field with no public access for this generation and generations to come. There’s nothing good about that,” said officials from Newport Banning Ranch, LLC. “But once fully restored under our proposed plan, the ranch will be a healthy, sustainable community with more than 80 percent of the property devoted to trails, parks, public access and open space.”
On the other side, Banning Ranch Conservancy is fighting to protect the last large coastal open space in Orange County.
They want, and are able, to buy the property at fair market value, Ray said.
“The developers will tell you we can’t do it, the commissioners will tell you we can’t do it, but we can do it,” Ray said. “We have that capability.”
Even though it’s been an oil field for many years, it still served the native wildlife, Welsh explained. That big of a project will not be able to avoid all of the important habitat, he said, which include rare species like the California gnatcatcher and the burrowing owl. The site also has historical significance as a documented native American settlement, Welsh added.
“We’ve always recognized Banning Ranch as a very special place,” Welsh said.
Kevin Nelson, founder of the Nature Commission, also attended the rally.
“This is really about the people of the future,” Nelson said. “What we’re doing here is fighting for those people of the future who are relying on us… to pull through and leave them something.”