A piece of land near Newport Bay — Southern California’s largest privately-owned, unprotected coastal space south of Ventura — could be the latest area to be officially protected in Orange County’s fight to maintain and preserve open space.

After facing housing development proposals by the city last year that could’ve impacted the area, enough funding has been acquired to secure the land and officially establish Banning Ranch as a public park.

The Trust for Public Land and the Banning Ranch Conservancy have been working for over a year to raise the $97 million necessary to purchase Banning Ranch from the private owners.

California’s Wildlife Conservation Board voted late May to approve up to a $15.5 million grant to help fund the purchase of Banning Ranch, an active oil field that has been eyed for the opportunity to restore coastal wetlands, address climate change and allow millions local coastal park access.

“[Acquiring the funding] is important for public access along the coast, which is increasingly rare, so this is a great location specifically with the wetlands area and adjacent upland,” Ray Hiemstra, Associate Director of Programs at Orange County Coastkeeper, said in an interview. 

“Preserving these varied communities is pretty rare, and Banning Ranch is a unique opportunity for that.” 

Next steps for the land include removing oil facilities and clean-up efforts. Various groups will work to create a plan for creating a vast public park with coastal access, walking and biking trails, and campsites.

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 philanthropists Frank and Joann Randall.

Previously, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service donated $11 million and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and other state lawmakers added approximately $16 million toward the cause.

[Read: $11 Million Grant Gets Banning Ranch Closer to Becoming Public Park]

“This is such an important moment in the decades-long, community-driven fight to close the park equity gap in Southern California and make Banning Ranch public, open to all and we’re thrilled to give residents the opportunity to realize a dream about what Banning Ranch can be, and work alongside them to make their vision come to life,” Guillermo Rodriguez, California state director for the Trust for Public Land, said in a statement.

Goals for this area include protecting the property from development and repurposing it from oil extraction to a public area that millions of local residents can enjoy. Further, the emphasis on protecting open space can address concerns regarding climate change and provide habitats for endangered and threatened species in the area.

Previously, Newport Beach City Council talks have included using parts of Banning Ranch to meet state housing mandates.

[Read: Newport Beach Questions Banning Ranch Park Preservation, Wants Housing There]

State officials want more than 4,800 housing units built in Newport Beach by the year 2029, and city officials say they’ll need some of the Banning Ranch land to meet housing demands from the state.

“Things like housing and other developments need to and will happen in the appropriate areas,” Hiemstra said. “What is important is that they don’t happen in areas like this. This is an extremely rare situation of open space adjacent to wetlands and right along the coast. That needed to be protected, and I’m glad it was.”

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.

“This has been a team effort, and we have kept our eyes on the prize,” Terry Welsh, president of Banning Ranch Conservancy, said in the statement. “It is an historic moment for our coast and for nature lovers and park lovers everywhere.”

This story has been updated to fix typos and clarify the proposed development impacts.

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

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