Coastal Commission Considers Plan To Develop Stretch Of Orange County Coastline

NEWPORT BEACH (CBSLA.com/AP) — Several hundred people packed a hearing on Wednesday about a hotly contested plan to build nearly 900 homes and a hotel on a stretch of Southern California coastline long used for oil drilling that now provides critical habitat for owls and other wildlife.

Many of the homes would have sweeping ocean views and sell for more than $1 million, according to the developers.

Opponents carrying signs with pictures of owls descended on a meeting room in upscale Newport Beach, where the California Coastal Commission was weighing a plan to develop the 401-acre site known as Banning Ranch.

Linda Mendenhall, who lives near the site, said she’s tired of the traffic and congestion in dense Orange County and relishes the wide open views and animals she has enjoyed seeing from her home for nearly three decades.

“We just don’t think they need to build another small city,” she said.

More than 400 people signed up to speak on the proposal to build 895 homes, a 75-room hotel and retail complex on the tract inhabited by burrowing owls and threatened and endangered wildlife.

The site is considered to be the largest remaining, privately held coastal property that could be developed south of Los Angeles, according to a commission spokeswoman.

Staff members for the commission recommended developers shrink the plan and confine building to 20 acres to protect habitat for the owl, which lives in holes dug by ground squirrels and is considered a bird of special concern in California.

Jack Ainsworth, the commission’s acting executive director, said the proposed development is one of the most important issues the panel has faced in the past four decades.

“It is critically important to get it right, because we may not get a second chance here and significant coastal resources are at stake,” he told commissioners.

Michael Mohler, senior project manager, said the limitations suggested by the commission’s staff are unrealistic and would thwart the project.

The plan currently would preserve roughly 80 percent of Banning Ranch as open space, but environmentalists want a much larger chunk protected, saying the property is 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.

Newport Banning Ranch — a partnership involving an oil producer and investment and real estate companies — has argued that developing about 70 acres would help fund as much as $40 million in restoration costs following years of drilling and the public would have access to walking trails and educational programs.

Dozens of people attended the meeting wearing T-shirts backing the project.

Environmental advocates contend the oil mess should be cleaned up regardless of whether homes are constructed. While some oil wells still operate, many have been abandoned and old, rusty pipes are strewn across the brush-covered property overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Last year, developers proposed an even larger version of the project. Staff members recommended that plan be denied, and commissioners encouraged them to work with Newport Banning Ranch — a partnership involving Aera Energy, Cherokee Investment Partners and Brooks Street — to come up with a smaller proposal.

“We put forth a plan we think is a viable plan,” developer Chris Yelich told CBS2’s Michele Gile.

(TM and © Copyright 2016 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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