California Coastal Commission Recommends Expanded Development at Large Coastal Site

Published July 15, 2016

The California Coastal Commission (CCC) has recommended approval of development plans for nearly 70 acres of land located on the Banning Ranch real estate project in Southern California.

CCC’s decision to approve the plans reverses the commission’s prior rejection of development on the site.

In a report prepared for CCC’s May 12 meeting, CCC staff proposed allowing the development of 895 houses, 45,100 square feet of commercial space, 4.6 acres of retail space, a 75-room hotel, and a 20-room hostel on 55 acres on the Banning Ranch. Consolidated oil operations have also been approved on an additional 11 acres of land.

CCC staff called the Banning Ranch property the “largest privately owned open space remaining along the coast,” and they say the plan would preserve 310 acres of the 401-acre tract for native species’ habitat and as wetlands.

Aera Energy, Cherokee Newport Beach, and the Brooks Street real estate firm formed the Newport Banning Ranch (NBR) project to develop the Banning Ranch site. The three companies have been trying to get approval from local authorities and the CCC to develop the site for the past nine years.

‘Environmentally Sensitive’ Claims Questioned

In October 2015, CCC ecologists labeled more than 95 percent of the property as environmentally sensitive, thereby restricting development to just 18.9 acres, 7.4 of which for consolidated oil. Residential and commercial development were limited to just 11.5 acres.

After touring the site, CCC commissioners disputed their ecologists’ assessment and directed staff to work with developers to come up with an acceptable project.

In an e-mail obtained by the Los Angeles Times, Steve Kinsey, a Marin County supervisor and chairman of the California Coastal Commission, told CCC staff Deputy Director Sherilyn Sarb, “My overall impression is that the site has been so heavily degraded by historic oil operations that many of the areas identified as [environmentally sensitive habitat areas] in the staff’s October presentation seem unwarranted.”

Responding to commissioners’ concerns, ecologists revisited the site and re-examined field data. They later concluded the area designated as available for residential and commercial development should expand from 11 acres to 55 acres.

Because the CCC staff’s recommended development plan differs substantially from NBR’s proposal, NBR will need to redesign its development project to fit within CCC’s plan.

A Positive Step, But …

K. Lloyd Billingsley, a policy fellow and communications counsel at the  Independent Institute, has written extensively on CCC. Billingsley applauds the present decision but says local authorities, not unelected bureaucrats at CCC, should be making development decisions along California’s coast.

“The development approval is welcome, but these decisions should be made by elected city and county officials, not an appointed, authoritarian commission with a long history of regulatory zealotry and corruption,” Billingsley said.

Sally Pipes, president of the Pacific Research Institute, says CCC’s decision is “very positive.”

“After years blocking the project, the California Coastal Commission’s recent decision to allow development of parts of the 401-acre Banning Ranch in the Newport Beach area is very positive,” Pipes said.

“But the amount of land approved for development and oil operations is relatively small,” said Pipes. “With California’s large, growing population, there is pressure for new homes to be built, and one can only hope that over time the Coastal Commission will open up more of the land to housing.”

Julian Morris, vice president for research at the Reason Foundation, says CCC’s history and the multi-year-long approval process for Banning Ranch shows the system is broken and violates individuals’ property rights.

“This decision highlights the problems that result when government bureaucrats are given authority to make detailed decisions regarding private development,” Morris said. “If there is a role for government in determining whether development takes place, it should be at the level of setting broad rules, such as, ‘Don’t cause a nuisance.’

“If developers violate those rules, then action can be taken,” said Morris. “Requiring permission in advance preempts all manner of beneficial development, undermines innovation, and protects vested interests, such as those who have already developed their land, at the expense of everyone else—while doing little if anything to protect the environment.”

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute.