Moddelmog: Last Chance for Banning Ranch’s Protected Owls

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The final Coastal Commission hearing for Banning Ranch will be held at the Newport Beach City Hall on September 7th!

Make no mistake – Orange County residents know exactly what is going on here. Big Oil (Exxon-Mobil, Shell, and their subsidiaries) is mowing down everything in their way to making money. They illegally mowed protected burrowing owl habitat on their property at Banning Ranch for years. Now, they want to finish the job, and pave over Banning Ranch once and for all.

The Coastal Commission’s expert staff recently recommended that the project proposal be shrunk in order to save the burrowing owls’ habitat. Alarmingly, though, the developers have been arguing for the creation of a loophole in the Coastal Act that would skirt requirements to protect burrowing owl habitat.

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The Burrowing Owls’ Last Stand

Somewhere between the OC’s endless housing tracts and the California Dream lies a rare sight. In the midst of acres of native grass, a burrowing owl mother pokes her head out of her den. She looks towards the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean below the bluff, and the wetlands spiraling lazily towards the Santa Ana River. A few years ago, her habitat of native coastal scrub was intentionally mowed short and hacked away, but it’s starting to grow back. A larger threat looms for this mother, though.

Does she know that at any moment, Big Oil’s bulldozers may put an abrupt end to her plans to winter here? Does she know that the mowed grasses are being used to argue that her home is “ugly” and not worth saving? She has survived intentional mowing of her winter habitat. But, if some of the last open fields in coastal Southern California are torn apart by nearly a thousand units of homes and hotels, she will likely leave, or worse: become roadkill. And along with her, the largest unprotected coastal open space left in Orange County will be gone too- paved over by hotels, an “urban colony”, and more subdivisions.

Big Oil’s Abuse of the Burrowing Owls

The oil wells that dot parts of Banning Ranch have kept the entire parcel free of urban development, and native wildlife like burrowing owls have thrived on the property. But when the oil started to dry up, Big Oil’s business model of extracting value from land with no regard to the environment ran straight into Coastal Act-protected habitat used by burrowing owls.

Big Oil of course wanted to build 1,375 homes and hotel rooms right on prime habitat used by burrowing owls and other native species. So, Big Oil illegally mowed down Banning Ranch’s wildlife habitat areas, which included the wintering grounds of burrowing owls. Not coincidentally, these mowed areas virtually mirrored the proposed development footprint. They refused to stop mowing until they were issued cease-and-desist orders by the Coastal Commission.

Big Oil Wants a Loophole

Now Big Oil wants to mow down the last thing in their way: the Coastal Act’s protections of Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area (ESHA) habitat, which includes hunting grounds that the burrowing owls depend on. Coastal Commission staff has labeled much of Banning Ranch as protected ESHA habitat for burrowing owls. So, Big Oil wants to allow “degraded” ESHA, such as intentionally mowed native habitat, to be destroyed by development.

If Big Oil gets away with this, it will serve as a big lesson to developers: if you try to mow or otherwise destroy protected habitat in the way of your coastal development but fail, don’t worry. It will become “degraded”, and you can finish the job, and pave over the coast (il)legally. The Coastal Act, Coastal Commission expert staff recommendations, and the burrowing owls, be damned.

Don’t let Big Oil finish off Banning Ranch, its Burrowing Owls, and CA’s Coastal Act:  Attend the final Coastal Commission hearing for Banning Ranch on September 7th at the new City Hall in Newport Beach!

Robert Moddelmog is a J.D. Candidate, Class of 2017, University of California, Irvine School of Law.

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org