NEWPORT BEACH, Calif.—After decades of work by environmental organizations, community members, and private donors, the 401-acre Banning Ranch, a stretch of land that parallels the Pacific Coast Highway from the mouth of the Santa Ana River and back into the city of Newport Beach, could soon become a permanent public open space.
However, $39 million in funds is needed by April 2022 in order to purchase and remediate the land, create a public park, and establish a nature preserve.
The former oil field—still sprinkled with tarry derricks and surrounded by a chain-link fence—is nestled between Newport Beach, Costa Mesa, and Huntington Beach. It’s the largest private open space along the Southern California coast.
Thanks to a recent $8 million grant from the California State Fish and Wildlife Department, as well as a $50 million private donation, the Banning Ranch Conservancy (BRC) and Trust for Public Land are closer to meeting an agreement made with the landowners to raise the remaining funds needed to transition the ranch into a public park and nature preserve.
Banning Ranch is one of three acquisition projects by the Fish and Wildlife Department at least partially financed through funds from the Proposition 1 Watershed Restoration Grant program. The program finances projects that restore habitats and their local wildlife, and create more reliable and sustainably managed water supplies and systems.
The Road to Acquisition
Back in 1999, resident and life-long conservationist Terry Welsh was part of a Sierra Club task force devoted to preserving the privately owned Banning Ranch as an undeveloped open space.
By 2008, the group branched out to form the BRC, a nonprofit with a mission to “preserve, acquire, conserve, and manage the entire Banning Ranch as permanent public open space, park, and coastal nature preserve.”
Welsh said that he started out simply holding monthly meetings to spread the word about Banning Ranch. Twenty-two years later, the conservancy, with the assistance of the Trust for Public Land, has raised more than half of the $97 million assessed fair market price necessary to acquire the property.
“There were times when there was just one other person at the meeting, but then slowly, we started attracting really smart, passionate, talented people and things began to happen … some of them we didn’t see coming,” Welsh told The Epoch Times.
In 2019, Newport Beach philanthropists Frank and Joann Randall, longtime supporters of conservation throughout California, donated $50 million toward the purchase price of Banning Ranch. Their pledge sparked excitement and momentum for the conservancy’s fundraising efforts. To date, the Randalls’ gift is the largest donation ever received by the Trust for Public Land.
The trust has led numerous high-profile conservation and park projects throughout Southern California and has a long history of working with organizations such as the BRC, securing agreements with private donors and landowners.
“Thanks to the work by the Trust for Public Land, we are knocking on the door now. It’s very exciting,” Welsh said. “There will never be another 400 acres for sale on the Southern California coast again. We could truly make history if all goes as planned from this point forward.”
A Native Heritage
Archaeologists have studied the indigenous Tongva and Acjachemen tribes that once lived on Banning Ranch in a village known as Genga, documenting cultural sites that date back at least 3,000 years—including three such sites that the California State Native American Heritage Commission has listed as sacred.
Spanish colonizers and Americans ranched and farmed along the Santa Ana River throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1920s, oil was discovered and mineral companies began digging their first oil wells on Banning Ranch during the early 1940s.
Over decades, more than 450 wells sprang up on the property, as the surrounding communities of Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach, and Newport Beach began to grow into vibrant, beachside communities, all stopping short at the edge of the Banning Ranch property.
By the late 1990s, as the oil output of the area waned, proposals began to emerge from developers hoping to build both residential and commercial properties.
Environmentalists and concerned residents envisioned keeping the property as an open space, a place where people could connect through outdoor activities and recreation while preserving the habitat for endangered plants and wildlife.
By the late 1990s, the BRC had been formed to push for the creation of a public park.
A ballot initiative meant to preserve Banning Ranch, consolidate oil operations, and restore the wetlands was approved by voters in 2006 and amended the City of Newport Beach’s general plan.
Environmentalists found that the ranch was home to peregrine falcons, San Diego fairy shrimp, burrowing owls, and California gnatcatchers, all considered sensitive species.
Welsh told The Epoch Times that the owners of Banning Ranch at one time tried to develop the property, but came up against resistance.
“The Newport Beach City Council approved the project in 2012,” Welsh said. “But in 2016, the permit was denied by the California Coastal Commission.”
After that, Welsh said the conservancy wondered what the owners were going to do with the property, thinking that perhaps they would try a smaller development proposal after being denied a larger one.
“No one knew what the fate of Banning Ranch would be, but then a few things happened in our favor, the most important when the Randalls stepped up to change the course of things, to the tune of $50 million,” Welsh said.
Conflicting State Priorities
Besides funding, another issue plaguing the fate of Banning Ranch is the confusing and conflicting priorities related to affordable housing requirements currently mandated by the state of California.
In a July 12 letter to Gustavo Velasquez, interim director of the California Department of Housing and Community Development, Newport Beach Mayor Brad Avery expressed concerns about the future of Banning Ranch.
“I want to express the City’s frustration with conflicting State priorities regarding affordable housing and the future of the Newport Banning Ranch,” Avery’s letter reads.
“As you are well aware, the Governor, the State Legislature, and State Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) require the City to plan for a significant amount of affordable housing moving forward. The City is committed to doing its part, but at the same time, various departments of the California Resources Agency, including the State Department of Fish and Wildlife and the California Coastal Commission are supporting an acquisition and conservation effort that would preclude housing altogether.”
Newport Beach is required by the state to allocate 4,845 units to meet Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) demands. Avery listed numerous land-use constraints in his letter, but also noted that the city was open to preserving a large portion of the ranch.
“The City is supportive of preserving most of the [Banning Ranch] property as a regional open space and recreational amenity, but we must also balance that goal considering the ongoing housing crisis,” the letter reads.
“However, the City is shocked to learn that the State Department of Fish and Wildlife recently announced on June 15, 2021, that it has granted $8 million to a local conservancy group to assist in the acquisition of Banning Ranch and preserving it, in its entirety, as a park with no potential for housing development. We are even more concerned with State legislators allocating an additional $8 million, through the State’s budget, put toward the purchase of the property.”
The city is now requesting that the state reduce or eliminate competing state priorities and support housing development where appropriate. It’s also requesting that the HCD reduce the City’s RHNA allocation equivalent to the 1,475 units that were planned for the site.
In response, a July 28 letter from the BRC by Welsh to the City of Newport Beach pointed out recent private property negotiations that specifically preclude housing as part of the agreement.
“As stated in our June 15, 2021, Zoom meeting with Community Development Director Seimone Jurjis, his deputy Jim Campbell, and Ben Zbeda, The Trust for Public Land outlined that it is in a binding contract with the landowners, that if successful, would preserve nearly the entire site as open space,” Welsh wrote. “During this Zoom meeting, BRC offered to assist the City in its efforts to relocate the RHNA housing units to other sites in the City.
“BRC maintains its position to effectuate the permanent protection of the Banning Ranch property for future generations to enjoy and cherish. We extend our thanks and hope that the City respects its own planning documents and the private party transaction to preserve the land, which when successfully conserved, permanently excludes any possibility for housing on this site.”