Banning Ranch to become 400-acre nature preserve in $97M deal

Former oilfield in north Newport Beach once slated for 1.8K homes

Frank and Joan Randall with Banning Ranch (Banning Ranch Conservancy, Power in Nature, Mark Rightmire, Flickr)
Frank and Joan Randall with Banning Ranch (Banning Ranch Conservancy, Power in Nature, Mark Rightmire, Flickr)

Banning Ranch, a former oilfield on the Orange County coast targeted for a 387-acre nature preserve, is now a nearly $100 million done deal.

The Trust for Public Land bought the property, considered the largest swath of undeveloped private land in OC, for use as a nature preserve, the Orange County Register reported. The seller was Newport Banning Ranch.

It’s being renamed the Frank and Joan Randall Preserve, in honor of the local philanthropists who gave $50 million toward the former oil field’s purchase. The gift led to state and federal funding that made the $97 million purchase possible.

The land, north of Pacific Coast Highway and east of the Santa Ana River, has been turned over to the Mountains, Recreation and Conservation Authority, which will manage its restoration.

The conservation authority will serve as the public land steward, while the Banning Ranch Conservancy will lead volunteer and programming development, fundraising and education.
For a quarter century, developers have eyed the land overlooking the Pacific Ocean between the cities of Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and Huntington Beach for housing and commercial projects.

Equivalent in size to 4.5 Disneylands, Banning Ranch is home to marshland, mudflats and riparian scrub and critical habitats for endangered species such as burrowing owls, fairy shrimp and peregrine falcons.

At one point, it was slated to be covered by as many as 1,750 homes. 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.

Aera Energy, based in Brea and a partner in Newport Banning Ranch, will conduct the remediation, to be overseen by the conservation authority. The work is expected to begin early next year.

— Dana Bartholomew

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