A precious piece of coastal land often targeted for real estate development is one step closer to becoming a protected public park near Newport Bay. 

Efforts to preserve 401 acres of wetlands, coastal uplands and vernal pools near the mouth of the Santa Ana River — known as Banning Ranch — capture a long-waged battle in Orange County over who the region’s public lands belong to.

Recently, Newport Beach residents put a stop to a near-deal between the County of Orange and a wealthy political donor to buy a piece of Back Bay parkland for just $13,000 — a price that’s since raised only more questions.

[Read: Newport Beach Residents Stop $13K County Sale of Back Bay Park Land to Wealthy GOP Donor]

Public land advocates are now raising funds for conservationists to turn Banning Ranch, a fenced-off private working oilfield, into a 384 acre park. 

On June 15, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife granted $8 million toward purchasing the land. 

In 2006, Newport Beach voters approved a General Plan to prioritize the acquisition of Banning Ranch as an open space amenity Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The Trust for Public Land, a non-profit, reached an agreement in May with the private owner of Banning Ranch to purchase the land if they can raise enough money. 

It has until next April to raise $97 million, which would then be passed on to a public agency to develop and maintain the park. 

“We still have a long ways to go to climb this mountain and a limited time to reach the top,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, California state director at The Trust For Public Land in a statement. 

It is unclear what will happen if activists don’t raise the money in time, but the buyer and seller are on board to go through with the agreement for the park, according to Terry Welsh, president of the Banning Ranch Conservancy, who has been involved for 20 years. 

In 2006, Newport Beach voters approved a General Plan to prioritize the acquisition of Banning Ranch as an open space amenity, and conservationists like Welsh are optimistic for the park’s reality.

The proposed park would be accessible to 8.4 million people who live within an hour’s drive. About half of which are considered low income and one-third are residents of park-deficient communities– making the project a high priority for addressing the park-equity gap in the region, according to a statement by The Trust for Public Land.

“Swaths of our cities have virtually no open space whatsoever. If you’re looking at trying to preserve species … and just sort of the mental health of the people that live there, it’s clear that having an open space is really important,” said Newport Beach activist Susan Skinner.

This exclusive agreement to buy the land set off when local philanthropists Frank and Joann Randall donated $50 million in 2019 for its purchase. 

For years prior, developers, officials and conservationists went head-to-head over a proposed project that would turn 62 acres into 895 homes, a 75- room hotel, a 20- bed hostel, and 45,100 square feet of commercial retail shops. 

The state’s Coastal Commission barred the project in 2016 and the California Supreme Court denied the project again in 2017, both due to lack of compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act. 

Banning Ranch is the largest remaining parcel of unprotected coastal open space in Southern California below Ventura. Along with its immense potential for recreation, it serves as a critical habitat for endangered species.

At least six animals listed as threatened or endangered have been documented on Banning Ranch: San Diego Fairy Shrimp, Light-footed Clapper Rail, American Peregrine Falcon, Least Bell’s Vireo, California Gnatcatcher and Belding’s Savannah Sparrow, according to the Banning Ranch Conservancy website. 

Banning Ranch will be able to host more wildlife as the Santa Ana estuary and wetlands are restored.

“We want to see the sensitive habitat protected and restored,” said Terry Welsh, president of Banning Ranch Conservancy in an interview. “We’re not envisioning, you know, a golf course or a green manicured lawn type of park with sports fields all over. We’re envisioning primarily a nature park.”

The state’s fish and wildlife grant comes from Proposition 1, which funds projects that improve water supply reliability, restore crucial habitat and build resilient water systems. 

The fish and wildlife department granted a total of $39 million to 28 projects for ecosystem and watershed restoration statewide, according to its statement June 15. 

“We see this grant as a giant vote of confidence for the future of Banning Ranch and a recognition of its benefits to the regional community,” said Rodriguez, the Trust for Public Lands director.

Jillie Herrold is a reporting fellow at Voice of OC and can be reached at jherrold@voiceofoc.org.

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