Banning Ranch poised for $97M sale, 400-acre nature preserve on OC coast envisioned

Trust for Public Land to buy former oilfield in Newport Beach for $97 million

Frank and Joann Randall with Banning Ranch (Mark Rightmire, Flickr) Banning Ranch, 97M
Frank and Joann Randall with Banning Ranch (Mark Rightmire, Flickr)

A nonprofit agency will soon buy the largest undeveloped private land on the Orange County coast for a nature preserve and public park.

The state’s Wildlife Conservation Board approved up to $15.5 million toward completing the $97-million purchase of Banning Ranch, a 401-acre former oilfield in Newport Beach, the Orange County Register reported.

The nonprofit Trust for Public Land will buy 384 acres of the property for $97 million from Newport Banning Ranch to turn into a nature preserve. Escrow is expected to close this summer.

Ideas for its use include restoration, trails and campgrounds, which are likely to cost tens of millions of dollars beyond the purchase price

“It’s all been private land since anyone can remember. No one has ever accessed it. Very soon, the public will become the new owners of Banning Ranch,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, California state director for the Trust for Public Land.. “It really will become a true destination in Southern California, an amazing jewel.”

The $97 million was raised through a mix of private donations, the largest a $50 million gift from Newport Beach developer and philanthropists Frank and Joann Randall, plus funding from state and federal sources.

The ranch, just inland of Pacific Coast Highway and east of the Santa Ana River, has been eyed for development since at least 1997, when a 1,750-home neighborhood was proposed. Plans were scaled back at least twice, with the most recent proposal calling for 895 homes, a resort hotel and retail shops on 70 acres.

That plan was rejected in 2016 by the California Coastal Commission, which cited environmental concerns.

At the same time, the Banning Ranch Conservancy was in the middle of a lawsuit and a series of appeals in which it challenged the developer’s 2012 environmental impact report and the city’s subsequent approval of the project.

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In March 2017, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the conservancy, and in November 2017, the city withdrew its previous approval of the project.

Banning Ranch is the last privately owned parcel of its size from the Mexico border to Ventura.

In addition to wetlands, the land includes a broad topographic range of habitat, including arroyos and coastal bluffs, with vernal pools with frogs and toads, and such birds as the California gnatcatcher, the yellow-breasted chat, and the cactus wren.

Though it became an oil field in the 1940s, most of the surface land has been untouched by development. Of the more than 400 wells once operating on the property, only about 60 remain active.

Terms of the sales agreement call for the landowner, Newport Banning Ranch, to clean up the abandoned oil operations. Active oil operations are expected to be consolidated on the 17 acres of land not included in the agreement with the trust. Clean-up is expected to take two years.

The California State Water Resources Control Board still needs to approve the cleanup and remediation of the property – a cost already calculated into the final price.

The property also has to be officially turned over to the state’s Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, which is set to vote in June to accept the property and become the public steward of the land, Rodriguez said.

[Orange County Register] – Dana Bartholomew

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