The California Coastal Commission unanimously approved a settlement with Newport Banning Ranch LLC on March 12.
The CCC approved a settlement agreement, cease and desist order and restoration order that will stop large scale vegetation removal, or mowing, restore damaged habitat and remove some oil wells.
“I think we’re finally at a point where the community and the property owners can begin to move forward,” said CCC Vice Chairwoman Jana Zimmer.
The agreement ensured that the unpermitted major vegetation removal is permanently halted and the affected areas are restored and permanently protected.
In an effort to discourage similar activity in the future, the agreement also imposes appropriate fines and seeks additional on-site mitigation at a ratio of at least three to one.
It also addressed unpermitted well drilling activity and required restoration of the habitat where appropriate.
West Newport Oil Company is still in negotiation with CCC staff for their own agreement.
While not admitting to any wrongdoing or liability, NBR agreed to the settlement terms.
It boils down to how to interpret the 1973 exemption of the Coastal Act and whether or not the development on the property falls within that exemption, explained Southern California Enforcement Supervisor Andrew Willis. The CCC staff and NBR interpret it differently.
“The purpose of this settlement agreement is to put those disagreements behind us and, at the same time, to resolve this enforcement matter by addressing the impacts of the subjects activities,” Willis said.
It’s also meant to provide clarity for the future of the site, he added.
Negotiations have been complex and intense, NBR Project Manager Mike Mohler noted.
They supported the staff recommendations, he explained.
“The bottom line is we spoke volumes by signing that agreement and by taking on the obligations that are contained within the agreement,” Mohler said. “We will stand tall and implement everything.”
In the agreement, NBR is committing to refrain from excessive mowing on the site, thus allowing the mowed areas to recover.
The only mowing allowed would be the minimum required for fire safety according to the Orange County Fire Authority, staff noted, which would be around active wells, pipelines and homes.
“What we see before us, we think will help preserve much of the valuable habitat, will protect the species, and… will help them come back,” said Banning Ranch Conservancy Executive Director Steve Ray.
Since mowing stopped a few years ago, Banning Ranch is “flourishing with native habitat,” Ray noted.
“We’ve said all along, ‘If the mowing stops, nature will return,’” Ray said. “It’s a beautiful place.”
Nature has not returned in some spots because they were scraped too diligently, Ray noted, and, as a result, those are the areas that CCC staff has identified for restoration.
A large number of locals and Banning Ranch Conservancy members attended the meeting in Chula Vista. Several members of the audience held signs and spoke in support of the settlement.
While they may not agree with everything in the negotiated settlement, they do support the staff recommendation, Ray noted.
It’s not perfect, but it is a significant step forward, the Conservancy noted in a statement.
“The Conservancy concurred with the settlement agreement, but with some concerns and conditions, which included the amount of acreage allotted for restoration and mitigation, which is less than half the 40-plus acres of habitat disturbed by the excessive vegetation removal and oil field activity,” the BRC explained.
Overall, they are pleased with the outcome.
“Three years ago, we would have only dreamed of having the mowing stopped, so you have to be happy with that,” said Banning Ranch Conservancy President, Terry Welsh, in a statement.
The commissioners have an opportunity to “right a wrong,” Welsh pointed out during the meeting.
“Caring people, united in a worthy cause, can make things happen,” the Banning Ranch Conservancy wrote on their facebook page in response to the decision.
“I appreciate both sides of this coming together and resolving a very complicated, very complex issue that has a lot of public attention and that has our attention as well for the right reasons,” said Commissioner Mark Vargas.
“It’s the only open space left in this part of Orange County,” Vargas said. “We all want to see eventually become restored and made available and accessible as possible for the public to be able to enjoy and nature to come back.”