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Millions of dollars in state grants and budget provisions have propelled local efforts to turn Newport Beach’s 384 acres of Banning Ranch into a protected, coastal public park — but city officials say they need some of that land for housing.

State officials want more than 4,800 housing units built in Newport Beach by the year 2029 — a goal that city officials argue may have a real shot in Banning Ranch’s 401 acres of undeveloped open space.

City officials say they’ll need a chunk of Banning Ranch land to meet housing demands from the state.

Activists fighting to preserve the area as an open space park, however, argue the type of development the city wants on the land isn’t feasible anyway.

It comes after state officials have put funding behind activists’ efforts to preserve Banning Ranch as open space, with a recent $8 million state Fish and Wildlife grant, followed by another $8 million from the state budget.

Now, in a July 12 letter to the state’s Housing and Community Development (HCD) agency, Newport Beach Mayor Brad Avery is calling out what his city sees as “contradicting and conflicting” state priorities.

HCD spokesperson Alicia Murillo declined to comment on Avery’s letter on Monday. 

If all of Banning Ranch is preserved as open space, Avery is requesting the state at least reduce the number of housing units required of Newport Beach under the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA).

Especially since officials say their new housing quota is “nearly 1,000 times” that of the previous housing unit cycle, which only required the construction of 5 units.

“The state has declared a housing emergency. We’re taking that seriously. Surely, a part of this very large piece of open space can be devoted to housing if the state is so serious about (its housing goals).”

Newport Beach Mayor Brad Avery said in a Monday phone interview

The city’s 2021-2029 housing plan identifies opportunities for 1,357 units on the property.

According to Newport Beach’s 2006 general plan, part of Banning Ranch may be developed if the land cannot be acquired as permanent open space. 

Since there is now a willing seller and funding coming from state and private donors, the acquisition is moving forward to preserve the land.

“In all likelihood Banning Ranch is going to be preserved. We’re not sure why the city has not turned their efforts.”

Terry Welsh, president of the Banning Ranch Conservancy, in a phone interview Monday

Previously, a proposal for a smaller development that was approved by the city in 2012 was denied by the Coastal Commission in 2016 because much of Banning Ranch is considered environmentally sensitive habitat area.

In a response to the city’s letter to HCD, the Banning Ranch Conservancy wrote in its own letter:

“Even with several iterations of the project […] the landowner’s proposal was denied in 2016 by the California Coastal Commission by a 9-1 vote.”

“The Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas protected by the Coastal Act restrict the potential development of the site from 401 acres down to, when buffers and infrastructure are considered, roughly 11 acres,” the letter adds. “The City’s quest for housing here does not change this constraint.”

“Even if there were no efforts to save Banning Ranch. Those are not realistic numbers,” Welsh said. “We’ve made it real clear that that’s not going to be possible.”

Welsh said the Banning Ranch Conservancy is willing to help the city find an alternative location to build housing, but that their plan to preserve the entirety as open space won’t change. 

“Housing and open space aren’t mutually exclusive,” Avery said. “I know (Banning Ranch Conservancy) thinks it’s not doable because of the way the land is configured, but I think we can figure that out.”

RHNA requirements have been a point of contention in Newport Beach, which last year moved to appeal the housing quotas imposed on the city by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), which sets the RHNA quotas for each city in the region.

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SCAG — assigned by the state to allocate 1.3 million homes to cities across Southern California to zone for — denied the city’s appeal, along with appeals by every other objecting city in the county.

Newport Beach officials have called the task of zoning over 4,800 new homes impossible, arguing that as a coastal city, there is little land to build on that’s not regulated by federal, state or county agencies.

At one point, city officials tried to push some of their allocation on to Santa Ana arguing the city already approved more units then they had to zone for but SCAG also denied that appeal.

City officials have called the new RHNA allocation “extreme” in the letter because the city notes “several major constraints that severely limit or totally restrict the City’s ability to accommodate this level of growth.”

The letter lists several constraints, including: sea level rise and storm hazards, flood zones, airport restrictions, seismic hazards, high fire severity zones, environmentally sensitive habitat and coastal zone restrictions.

But officials say the city’s main reason for pushback has revolved around lack of available land. 

Preserving the only largely vacant property in the city as a park would make it impossible for Newport Beach to build enough housing to satisfy the state’s quota, Avery wrote in his letter to HCD.

Avery said he recognizes development on the land wouldn’t be the “best outcome” for those who “want Banning Ranch to be quote-unquote pristine.”

“But none of us are getting the outcomes we want out of this housing crisis.”

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Banning Ranch, a 401-acre piece of coastal land used for oil production, is the last and largest swath of privately-owned open space between Ventura County and Mexico.

It has been the center of dispute between developers and conservationists for decades. 

Due to a recent increase in funding between private donors and state resource agencies to buy the property, the land is on track to become a preserved 384-acre nature park, while the remaining acres would be used for oil production.

It kicked off with a $50 million donation from Frank and Joann Randall to the Banning Ranch Conservancy in 2019. The exclusive agreement includes a clause that “expressly prohibits any housing on the site if it is conserved,” according to the conservancy’s letter. 

A few years later, the state threw money in.

Reporting fellow Hosam Elattar contributed reporting. 

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