Banning Ranch Takes Key Milestone to Become a Coastal Nature Preserve – Orange County Register
Newport Beach’s Banning Ranch, Southern California’s largest private undeveloped coastal site, moved closer this week to becoming a prized public nature preserve, potentially in league with Upper Newport Bay, the Bolsa Chica Wetlands and the Torrey Pines State Reserve.
After more than two decades of fighting development proposals for the 401-acre parcel that abuts the Pacific Coast Highway, environmentalists celebrate Thursday, May 20, the announcement that the Trust for Public Land has reached a settlement with the landowner to buy 384 acres of the site for $97 million.
“It’s historic,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, the trust’s state director. “It’s a signal that it’s real, that it’s no longer a dream.”
The next hurdle is raising the additional $47 million needed to complete the deal by the June 30, 2022 deadline. Rodriguez said the $50 million already in hand — donated in 2019 by the developer and philanthropist of Newport Beach Frank Randall and his wife, Joann — were instrumental in bringing the landowner to the negotiating table.
“We’re very confident that between public and private dollars, we can raise the rest,” Rodriguez said, adding that the lion’s share of the remaining money will likely come from state and federal coffers.
“We believe the opportunity for restoration of wetlands and habitat, and for public use, will make this attractive for public funding,” he said. “We hope to cover any shortfall with private investment.”
In addition to wetlands, the land includes a wide topographic range of habitats, including arroyos and coastal cliffs. Although it became an oil field in the 1940s, most of the surface has remained untouched by development.
Of the more than 400 wells that once operated on the property, only about 60 remain active. The terms of the sale agreement call for the landowner, Newport Banning Ranch LLC, to clean up the abandoned oil operations. Active oil operations are expected to be consolidated on the 17 acres of land not included in the agreement with the trust.
“It’s a big deal,” said Terry Welsh, who began fighting development at the site 22 years ago and is president of the Banning Ranch Conservancy. “We’re not there yet, but we’re closer than we’ve ever been.”
past and future
The location, just inland from the Pacific Coast Highway and east of the Santa Ana River, has been considered for development since at least 1997, when a 1,750-home neighborhood was proposed. Plans have been scaled back at least twice, with the most recent proposal calling for 895 homes, a resort hotel and retail stores on 70 acres.
This plan was rejected in 2016 by the California Coastal Commission, which cited environmental concerns. At the same time, the Banning Ranch Conservancy was in the midst of a lawsuit and a series of appeals in which it challenged the developer’s 2012 environmental impact report and the city’s subsequent approval of the project.
In March 2017, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the preservation, and in November 2017 the city withdrew its previous approval of the project. Until Thursday
announcement, the owner’s public position was that he was exploring other development possibilities.
“We’ve never had the opportunity to buy it before,” Rodriguez said.
If the sale goes through, Rodriguez predicted it would take about two years to clean up the site and begin preparing it for public use.
Ideas for that eventual use include restoration, trails and campgrounds, and will likely cost tens of millions of dollars beyond the purchase price, he said.
“We would start with an audience engagement process to see what the audience wants,” he said. “Then a formal plan would be drawn up.”