published on September 7, 2016 - 10:41 PM
Written by The Business Journal Staff

(AP) — A hotly-contested proposal to build homes on a stretch of Southern California coastline long used for oil drilling that also provides wildlife habitat will be up for public discussion Wednesday.

The California Coastal Commission will hold a hearing in Newport Beach on the plan to build 895 homes, a 75-room hotel and retail complex on the 401-acre site long used for oil drilling. It is considered to be the largest remaining, privately-held coastal property that could be developed south of Los Angeles, according to a commission spokeswoman.

While the plan would preserve roughly 80 percent of Banning Ranch as open space, environmentalists want a much larger chunk protected, saying the property is home to threatened and endangered species.

Newport Banning Ranch — a partnership involving an oil producer and investment and real estate companies — has argued that developing about 70 acres would help fund an estimated $30 million to $40 million in restoration costs following years of drilling and that the public would have access to walking trails and educational programs.

But environmental advocates contend the oil mess should be cleaned up regardless of whether homes are built. While some oil wells still operate, many have since been abandoned and old, rusty pipes are strewn across the brush-covered property overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Commission staff members recommended developers confine building to 20 acres to protect habitat for the burrowing owl. Last year, a larger version of the project was denied, and developers were urged to work with Newport Banning Ranch to help downsize the proposal.

The land provides critical habitat for the owl and the threatened California gnatcatcher, a small, blue-gray songbird. It is also home to a rare vernal pool system that fills with rainwater each spring where endangered San Diego fairy shrimp are known to thrive.

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