Decision by California panel leaves coastal land untouched




NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. (AP) — A long-awaited vote by a California panel will leave a valuable, 401-acre stretch of oil land overlooking the Pacific Ocean virtually untouched for now and without an immediate plan to develop or preserve it.

The decision late Wednesday by the California Coastal Commission to deny a proposal to build nearly 900 homes means the land in Orange County will remain covered with a patchwork of oil wells and coastal shrubs that shelter rare wildlife coveted by residents who yearn for more open space.

Environmentalists concede that some building should be allowed on the swath known as Banning Ranch but want to see the developer's plan for million-dollar homes, a 75-room hotel and shops downsized and confined to degraded areas that don't provide critical wildlife habitat.

Newport Banning Ranch, a partnership involving an oil producer and investment and real estate companies, can resubmit plans to build in six months for a fee. The group is also considering whether to sue the commission, said Adam Alberti, a spokesman for the developer.

Before the 9-1 vote against the project, Newport Banning Ranch said oil drilling could continue if the homes weren't approved. While environmentalists want the site cleaned up, some said leaving the property as-is for now is better than building.

"These coastal swaths and the rare and threatened animals and plants they house have become increasingly precious in California," said Noaki Schwartz, a commission spokeswoman. "In the end they made a tough but very solid decision."

The debate came as large stretches of privately held coastal land south of Los Angeles have dwindled. Many have been developed and environmental groups are eager to preserve coastal lands and increase access for the public.

Newport Banning Ranch — comprised of Aera Energy, Cherokee Investment Partners and Brooks Street — had proposed to clean up the oil mess and preserve about 80 percent of the land, creating walking trails for public access and educational programs.

Initially, the proposed development was larger, but commission staff members disapproved.

Developers then downsized the plan to 895 homes, but staff last month recommended shrinking the project further to protect habitat for the burrowing owl, which lives in holes dug by ground squirrels and is considered a bird of special concern in California.

Newport Banning Ranch — which had planned to use revenue from building the homes to pay oil cleanup costs — said more downsizing would essentially kill the plan.

"We are deeply disappointed in the Coastal Commission's actions and the actions of their staff that essentially torpedoed a viable plan to open, clean and restore Banning Ranch," Alberti said. "Where we go from here, we don't know."

Environmental advocates welcomed the decision after hundreds of people packed an hours-long commission hearing in upscale Newport Beach, some carrying pictures of the owl. Many said the property owner must clean up the oil mess anyway, regardless of whether homes are built.

While oil drilling has been done on the site for 70 years, the land is still home to species including the threatened California gnatcatcher — a small, blue-gray songbird — and a rare vernal pool system that fills with rainwater where endangered San Diego fairy shrimp are known to thrive.

Oil activity has slowed on the property since its peak during the 1980s, but rusty pipes and equipment remain. Even so, nearby residents said they relish the coastal views.

"People need to have open space just like the animals need it — people need it, too," said Susan Jordan, executive director of the California Coastal Protection Network.
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