Environment & Science

CA supreme court takes up Banning Ranch coastal land case

This Aug. 18, 2016 photo shows what remains of an oil-extraction operation in Banning Ranch, on what is believed to be the biggest piece of privately-owned vacant land on Southern California's coast in Newport Beach. Developers want to build 895 homes and a 75-room resort hotel on the 401-acre swath of land in upscale Newport Beach. Proponents say they would rehabilitate and preserve much of the scenic site, but opponents say the land should be left as open space. Native American groups have also begun to look into whether the site might be sacred ground.
This Aug. 18, 2016 photo shows what remains of an oil-extraction operation in Banning Ranch, on what is believed to be the biggest piece of privately-owned vacant land on Southern California's coast in Newport Beach. Developers want to build 895 homes and a 75-room resort hotel on the 401-acre swath of land in upscale Newport Beach. Proponents say they would rehabilitate and preserve much of the scenic site, but opponents say the land should be left as open space. Native American groups have also begun to look into whether the site might be sacred ground.
Nick Ut/AP

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A lawsuit over the sprawling Banning Ranch parcel in Newport Beach, one of the last remaining stretches of unprotected open space along the Southern California coast, is headed to the California Supreme Court on Wednesday. 

The court will hear oral arguments in a case originally filed by the conservation group Banning Ranch Conservancy against the City of Newport Beach for allegedly violating the city's general plan by approving the development of 1,375 homes, a hotel and shopping center on the former oil field. 

The suit also claims that the city violated the California Environmental Quality Act by failing to properly consult with the California Coastal Commission before approving the development. 
A trial court ruled that the city did violate its general plan in approving the project, but an appeals court overturned the decision in 2015. 

The supreme court’s hearing of the case comes at an uncertain time for the future of Banning Ranch. In September, the Coastal Commission rejected the developer’s latest, scaled-down proposal for a project of nearly 900 homes. 

The developer, Newport Banning Ranch, filed suit against the Coastal Commission in November, alleging that the decision amounted to an illegal taking of the property. 

Terry Welsh, president of Banning Ranch Conservancy, said he hoped the California supreme court would hand conservationists a victory and set a precedent for other cities. 

“It would be a good precedent for cities everywhere, even ones that aren’t in the coastal zone, that if you have a general plan, you have to follow it,” he said. 

Welsh added that he hopes the developers will be forced to resubmit a much smaller project for approval by the Newport Beach City Council. 

Newport’s general plan prioritizes acquiring Banning Ranch for open space but lays out the possibility for some development with “the majority of the property preserved as open space.”
Welsh’s group wants to acquire the entire property for open space. 

Newport Beach City Attorney Aaron Harp didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Newport Banning Ranch’s senior project manager Michael Mohler also did not respond. 

Oral arguments in the case before the state Supreme Court are scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. on Wednesday and will be broadcast live on the court’s website.