A piece of coastal land near Newport Bay is one step closer to reaching the $97 million dollars needed to turn the space into a public park and avoid it being sold for real estate development.

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

The organization has until next April to raise the $97 million, which would then be passed on to the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority to develop and maintain the 384-acre park. 

Now, the organization needs $14 million more to become a coastal public park after the United States Fish and Wildlife Service donated $11 million, bringing the grand total to $83 million.

[Read: Banning Ranch One Step Closer to Becoming Coastal Public Park with $8 million State Grant]

“We are absolutely thrilled that the Service awarded this grant — we are now only 15% away from reaching the acquisition price. The size of the award speaks volumes to the importance of the many sensitive plants and animals on the site,” Melanie Schlotterbeck, Executive Director of the Banning Ranch Conservancy, said in a statement.

Efforts to conserve Banning Ranch have been in the works since 2016 and after the appraised value of $97 million was determined, the fundraising was kickstarted with a $50 million donation from local philathropists Frank and Joann Randall. 

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife and other state lawmakers have added approximately $16 million.

“The dream of converting Banning Ranch into a public park has been around for decades, and is now getting closer and closer to reality,” Guillermo Rodriguez, California state director at The Trust For Public Land, said in a statement. “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.”

Banning Ranch is the largest remaining parcel of unprotected coastal open space in Southern California south of Ventura. 

“The opportunity is enormous, and I think the fact that so many state and federal agencies have already contributed such enormous grants toward its preservation speaks volumes toward its importance,” Schlotterbeck said in an interview.

Along with its potential for recreation, Banning Ranch also 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.

“We want to see the sensitive habitat protected and restored,” said Terry Welsh, president of Banning Ranch Conservancy. “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.”

Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC News Intern. Contact her at ahicks@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.

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