Environmentalists celebrated this week after a Newport Beach couple announced they would commit another $45 million, in addition to $5 million donated in 2012, toward the purchase and conservation of Banning Ranch.
But it’s still unclear if the land owners will sell or what sale price they might approve.
Frank and Joann Randall plan to transfer $45 million in stock shares to the Trust for Public Land, in addition to $5 million in stock they’ve previously committed, in an effort to help buy Banning Ranch. Frank Randall, 89, started his career as a stockbroker and later started a side enterprise redeveloping malls and other retail centers in the Los Angeles Area.
“This is a unique opportunity to do something right on the coast which is very important for people living in Orange County and particularly when they come down for Huntington Beach or up from Newport where they can enjoy and experience the open space,” Randall said. “It’s going to be a wonderful thing for the public to use when it’s completed.
An appraisal of the entire property is underway and is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2021, he said.
Conservationists say the Randalls’ donations will help unlock some state funding for Banning Ranch’s purchase once pollution underneath the oil fields is cleaned up. Pathways and other park infrastructure will likely follow.
To get to this point, environmentalists levied significant public pressure over decades to protect habitat for endangered species including American peregrine falcons, least Bell’s vireo, California gnatcatchers, and fairy shrimp.
In September 2016, the California Coastal Commission rejected a proposal from Newport Banning Ranch LLC to build 895 homes, a 75-room hotel, a 20-bed hostel and 45,100 square feet of retail space on 62 acres.
Michael Mohler, senior project manager for the developer, said at the hearing that commission staffers’ plan to protect environmental sensitive habitat would allow development on only about 10 acres — about a sixth of the original design — making the project economically unviable.
In March 2017, the California Supreme Court dealt a second critical blow to the developer by ruling unanimously that the city of Newport Beach failed to adequately review the project’s environmental impacts. Any future plan from Newport Banning Ranch would require an amended environmental impact report to city leaders for review.
In light of these consequential decisions, Banning Ranch lost most of its development value.
Left with no other prospective buyers besides the Trust for Public Land and Banning Ranch Conservancy, a sale price for Banning Ranch remains uncertain.
Mohler directed a request for comment to Trust for Public Land Project Manager Paolo Perrone.
The audience at the Banning Ranch Conservancy’s 20th annual gala on Nov. 2 erupted into shouts and applause after Randall disclosed his contribution, conservancy president Terry Welsh said.
“It’s an enormous amount of money and for us, it’s a huge step toward our goal,” Welsh said. “It’s amazing that a local couple like this wants to leave a legacy for future generations.”
Speaking from their family ranch in San Diego County, Joann Randall recalled a time when she and her husband would drive through the 15 and 79 freeway interchange and see nothing but fields. Now there is a major hospital, box stores, and housing tracts.
Jean Watt, co-founder of Stop Polluting Our Newport, wrote in an email the preservation of Banning Ranch for public natural open space would round out a 60-year battle to preserve Newport’s coastal heritage.
“There’s lots still to overcome including future planning and integration into the regional Orange Coast River Park,” Watt wrote. “But the state, in providing for the Coastal Conservancy, set in motion various means of preservation and funding and this gift should be the key that unlocks the final pieces of the puzzle. The Randalls should be applauded mightily for their foresight and philanthropy.”
Perrone, of the Trust for Public Land, started negotiating as the principal buyer more than a year ago. The Conservancy hasn’t participated, but supports these talks.
The Trust for Public Land his organization conservation work spans from tens of thousands of acres in National Parks to a two-acre strip of open space. Perrone looks forward to working with Banning Ranch’s owners to make sure they are sufficiently remediating the former oil fields.
“I’m extremely proud of the trust for public land being the organization to take this on and our ability to leave a legacy for the millions of Americans who live by the property,” Perrone said. “We know the coast draws people from farther than that. We are here to preserve this last largest piece of coastal open space in Southern California.”