State coastal officials took a field trip to Newport Beach recently.
California Coastal Commission members, staff, local residents and guests took a tour of Banning Ranch June 11 during their meeting, held in Huntington Beach this month.
About 100 people filled three buses following the conclusion of the meeting.
The group stopped at four locations: Coast Highway overlook point from Bluff Road; canyon overlook from the location of the proposed residential development site; southern Arroyo viewpoint at the point where Bluff Road and Bluff Park meet; and lowlands lookout point from the northern edge of the residential village where a trail would be constructed.
It was a rare opportunity to see the land and visualize the project from a “behind the scenes” perspective.
A staff member clarified that it was an informational field trip, not a hearing on the project.
Before the field trip, commissioners heard a presentation about the project from CCC analyst Amber Dobson and staff ecologist Dr. Jonna Engel.
It’s the largest privately owned property in the coastal zone along the Orange County coastline that hasn’t yet been committed to urban development, Dobson said.
The site is not under any commission certified land use plan nor any certified local coastal plan, she explained, so the standard of review is the Coastal Act.
The 401-acre site mixed use proposal project description includes construction of 257 acres of habitat preservation and restoration area, open space and trails, 32 acres of parks, 11 acres of new road network, 17 acres of remaining oil production facilities, and 83 acres of mixed use development, including 1,375 residential units, 75,000 square feet of commercial space, 75-unit coastal inn and approximately 400 public parking spaces.
The proposal includes clearance of major vegetation, 2.5 million cubic yards of grading, landform alteration, fill of seasonal pools and riparian areas, subdivision and lot divisions, habitat restoration and approval of a development agreement.
The application also seeks a permits for two improvements off-site, which include the extension of 16th Street into the proposed housing development area through the neighboring city utility yard and Newport-Mesa Unified School District property and a 260 foot long pedestrian bridge spanning Coast Highway.
Engel discussed the biology on site, specifically the geographic setting, sensitive vegetation, vernal pools, seasonal wetlands, special status species supported on the property and the results of biological surveys performed on the property over the years.
Newport Banning Ranch has a diverse topography, she said.
Along with Engel and Dobson, Orange County Coastal Program Manager Karl Schwing led the tour.
They pointed out where roads, buildings, parks and other facilities would be located. They indicated which areas would be graded, restored, developed or preserved and left as open space. Maps and information were also handed out.
Engel discussed a few of the native habitats and species. She explained what animals and plants are currently growing and living in the area compared to what might change with the development. Engel also identified wetland areas that would be restored or preserved.
Several members of the public also spoke before the group left on the tour.
The site provides a foundation for a “significant ecosystem,” said Kevin Nelson. He encouraged the commissioners to think long term.
With time running short, Executive Director of Banning Ranch Conservancy Steve Ray offered to speak during public comment the next morning.
Ray gave a short presentation on June 12, noting several unresolved issues, including unpermitted oil wells and infrastructure, inadequate mitigation for impacts, incomplete biological studies and traffic analyses and more.
The conservancy’s ideal plan would be to buy the property and turn it into a permanent open space, nature preserve and park, Ray said. It would be free and open to the public, he added. They have already been working with funding sources, he added.
It’s a valuable habitat that should be saved, he concluded, receiving a spirited applause from the audience.
Also during the June 12 meeting, staff explained to commissioners that the application is incomplete and that it would be difficult to determine a timeline of when the project might actually appear before the commission.