20 things everyone should know about Banning Ranch/Bluff Road/Sunset Ridge.........Terry Welsh
Banning Ranch/Sunset Ridge is the largest parcel of unprotected coastal open space remaining in Orange County, with sensitive biological resources comparable to those found at Bolsa Chica and Upper Newport Bay. Banning Ranch/Sunset Ridge support a mix of coastal wetland, riparian woodland, coastal bluff scrub, shortgrass grassland, and vernal pool communities that is without parallel anywhere in Orange County. Banning Ranch/Sunset Ridge and the associated wetlands of the lower Santa Ana River support at least as many listed or otherwise highly sensitive wildlife species as do Bolsa Chica and Upper Newport Bay combined. This includes at least six wildlife species listed as threatened or endangered: San Diego Fairy Shrimp, Light-footed Clapper Rail, American Peregrine Falcon, Least Bell’s Vireo, California Gnatcatcher, and Belding’s Savannah Sparrow. Other highly sensitive species found on these lands include the Osprey, White-tailed Kite, Burrowing Owl, Cactus Wren, and Loggerhead Shrike. All other large privately-owned parcels in coastal Orange County (Marblehead, Dana Point Headlands, Crystal Cove, Castaways, and Bolsa Chica) have seen development.
The proposed development at Banning Ranch is the absolute largest size allowed under the Newport Beach General Plan and is at least twice as large and, on average, six times as dense as anything built along the Orange County coast in recent memory (see table below).
Marblehead (San Clemente)
Dana Point Headlands
Crystal Cove (Newport Beach)
Castaways (Newport Beach)
The Newport Beach General Plan clearly makes preserving Banning Ranch as open space a priority over developing Banning Ranch. The Newport Beach General Plan was amended by the voters in 2006. While it allows the owners of Banning Ranch a chance to develop their property, it clearly makes preservation of the entire Banning Ranch a priority with the following wording: “The General Plan prioritizes the acquisition of Banning Ranch as an open space amenity for the community and region. Oil operations would be consolidated, wetlands restored, nature education and interpretative facilities provided, and an active park developed containing playfields and other facilities to serve residents of adjoining neighborhoods.”
There is no reference to Bluff Road in the General Plan open space priority language for Banning Ranch. The General Plan's description of the Banning Ranch open space priority makes no mention of an arterial roadway (Bluff Road) through Banning Ranch (such a roadway is described, however, in the description of the development option for Banning Ranch). Bluff Road is planned as a four lane roadway, with a capacity of 34,000 – 57,000 cars/day. Concerned citizens attended numerous public hearings prior to the 2006 General Plan amendment and were successful in getting the open space priority language included in the General Plan. Bluff Road is not included in this open space priority language.
Newport Beach does not need Bluff Road. Newport Beach has prospered without Bluff Road. A study published in the Orange County Register on 2/22/10 listed Newport Beach as the wealthiest community in the United States. Bluff Road would serve to redirect commuter traffic between Huntington Beach and the 55 Freeway away from Newport Beach and onto the streets of the less prosperous west side of Costa Mesa.
The current proposed Sunset Ridge Park plan, with its Banning Ranch entrance road (i.e. the first leg of Bluff Road), is intimately connected to the proposed Banning Ranch development. Newport Beach City officials have met with the owners of Banning Ranch in closed session negotiations during the last few years. A complex arrangement has been reached where Newport Beach will be granted an easement to build Bluff Road across Banning Ranch, as well as be granted up to 15 acres on the Banning Ranch mesa near 15th Street to build a lighted sports complex. In turn, the City is doing the work of getting approval and building a Pacific Coast Highway entrance to Banning Ranch (i.e. the Sunset Ridge Park Banning Ranch entrance road). In the Sunset Ridge Park plan, there are directions for widening Pacific Coast Highway with an extra lane of traffic, adding an intersection with a stoplight on Pacific Coast Highway, and construction of a grand landscaped divided entrance (all of this for a small park with an estimated maximum traffic expectation of 173 car trips/day). Finally, both the ownership of Banning Ranch and the City of Newport Beach have hired the same consulting firms whom have been in joint meetings with representatives of the US Army Corps of Engineers and US Fish and Wildlife Service, working on a Section 7 biological assessment that will cover both Sunset Ridge Park and the proposed Banning Ranch development. In conclusion, Newport Beach officials have clearly linked Sunset Ridge Park with the proposed development plan for Banning Ranch.
Sunset Ridge Park can be built without the Banning Ranch entrance road. Many alternatives were offered in the public's comments for the Sunset Ridge Park Environmental Impact Report (EIR). For example, there is a chronically under-utilized public parking lot immediately across the street from Sunset Ridge Park.
Newport Beach has not seriously considered alternatives to the Sunset Ridge Park Banning Ranch entrance road. A deed restriction, placed on the property at the time of sale from Caltrans to Newport Beach, is often cited by City officials as proof that no entrance roads can be placed on the south side of Sunset Ridge. This deed restriction was included to ensure that Sunset Ridge could not be developed in a speculative profit-driven manner, enabling Caltrans to sell Sunset Ridge to Newport Beach at a discount. The deed restriction was not included to prevent a park access road. Yet, City officials have made no attempt to enter into negotiations with Caltrans to revisit this deed restriction.
The public supports alternatives to the Sunset Ridge Park Banning Ranch entrance road. In an overflowing crowd, and by a 3 to 1 margin, speakers at the 3/23/10 Newport Beach City Council meeting (the meeting where the City approved the Sunset Ridge Park EIR) urged the Council members to support alternatives to the Sunset Ridge Park Banning Ranch entrance road.
Caltrans opposes a stoplight at the intersection of the proposed Bluff Road and Pacific Coast Highway. This would result in a second stoplight only 900 feet from the existing stoplight at Superior Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway. This close proximity of a second traffic light would adversely impact traffic flow.
Since the Sunset Ridge Park Banning Ranch entrance road is really the first leg of the planned Bluff Road, and since the construction of Bluff Road and the subsequent planned 1375 home residential development would have major environmental impacts on the entire Banning Ranch, Newport Beach should not be able to "segment" the Banning Ranch development EIR (expected to be released in 2011) by attaching portions of the Banning Ranch development EIR to the smaller Sunset Ridge Park EIR. This segmentation, and the unwillingness of the Newport Beach City Council to seriously consider alternatives to the Sunset Ridge Park Banning Ranch entrance road, are the basis of a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) lawsuit filed by the Banning Ranch Conservancy in April 2010.
The southeast corner of Banning Ranch is an Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area (ESHA), protected under the California Coastal Act. The southeast corner of Banning Ranch, site of the controversial Sunset Ridge Park Banning Ranch entrance road, is an area where federally threatened California Gnatcatchers have repeatedly been documented during numerous surveys dating back to 1992.
Despite being aware that illegal clearing of Gnatcatcher Critical Habitat occurred in the southeast corner of Banning Ranch in 2004 (with some of this clearing occurring on City land), and in spite of public comments requesting that the Sunset Ridge Park EIR address the potential implication of the clearing, the City and its consultants decided that this was not an issue requiring analysis under CEQA. The City of Newport Beach responded by claiming that the clearing happened before they purchased Sunset Ridge and that “resolution of this issue will be handled through the administrative processes by the responsible parties.” Under the California Coastal Act, however, violations “travel with the land” and not with the ownership of the land, meaning that the City will be held responsible regardless of when it acquired the land. The illegally cleared areas are known to have supported California Gnatcatchers prior to the violation and they must be restored to ESHA. This restoration will directly conflict with the grading plan proposed by the City in the Sunset Ridge Park EIR----a very good reason why the City should have addressed this during CEQA review.
Both the City and the owners of Banning Ranch continue to conduct repeated clearing of additional native scrub habitat under the excuse of "fuel modification" and “weed abatement”. Mowing and herbicide-spraying of native scrub dominated by California Sunflower is conducted without approval of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and without a Coastal Development Permit. California Sunflower is not a weed and this native shrub is expressly allowed “in all fuel modification wet and dry zones in all locations” by the Orange County Fire Authority. This mowing and spraying occurs far in excess of the 100 feet buffers designed to protect structures, recommended by the Orange County Fire Authority.
The planned Bluff Road is a four-part violation of the Coastal Act. After (a) removing habitats occupied by California Gnatcatchers in the southeastern corner of Banning Ranch, Bluff Road would (b) overrun a vernal pool and then proceed directly across a documented wintering site of the Burrowing Owl, (c) traverse through a vernal pool complex in the middle mesa and finally, (d) in the segment closest to 19th Street in Costa Mesa, wipe out and fragment areas that even the owners admit are ESHA.
An active “destination” sports park doesn't HAVE to be built on Sunset Ridge. The land use designation for Sunset Ridge is currently Open Space-Active. Other recreational activities or passive uses would still be in keeping with the goal to provide recreational opportunities near the coast and would still address the park space deficit in west Newport Beach.
There are other places to put sports fields in west Newport Beach. There is a vacant 11-acre parcel of surplus public property, owned by the Newport Mesa Unified School District, in west Newport Beach. Less than 1000 feet away is another vacant 7-acre parcel of private land that could also serve as a site for athletic fields.
Money is available for the purchase of Banning Ranch. Measure M, a sales tax designed to fund Orange County transportation projects, includes up to $240 million to be used for habitat purchase. An application for a portion of these funds, submitted by the Banning Ranch Conservancy, resulted in Banning Ranch being placed near the top of all applicants’ projects in terms of Biological Resources. Access to these Measure M funds will require the consent of the owners of Banning Ranch.
Denial of the construction of Bluff Road, or its connection with Pacific Coast Highway, will not represent a "taking" of the private property rights of the ownership of Banning Ranch. For 70 years, Banning Ranch has been accessed through an entrance on 17th Street. It can continue to be accessed through this entrance. Banning Ranch has produced millions of dollars in oil revenue through the years and will continue to do so under any development plan.
Development of Banning Ranch is not necessary to fund the cleanup of Banning Ranch. The cleanup of contamination at Banning Ranch (the result of 70 years of oil production) is solely the responsibility of the owners. The major owner of Banning Ranch is AERA Energy LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of ExxonMobil and Shell Oil. In 2009, AERA Energy LLC had revenues of nearly 3 billion dollars. The public doesn't "owe" development entitlements to AERA Energy LLC in order to fund the cleanup of Banning Ranch.
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