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Rare plants, animals affected in Banning Ranch

Coastal Commission letter's claims could hamper development plans at the Newport Beach site.

October 25, 2010|By Mike Reicher, mike.reicher@latimes.com

NEWPORT BEACH — The California Coastal Commission recently warned the owners of Banning Ranch that someone may have illegally graded land, cleared brush and stacked construction materials in areas with rare plants and animal species.

A contractor working on a utility project there between 2004 and 2006 may have violated the Coastal Act when he didn't get permits for earth-moving and other actions, according to a Coastal Commission letter written earlier this month. The letter was sent to the owners of Banning Ranch, the city, Southern California Edison and Edison's subcontractor that worked there.

If the Coastal Commission finds the area in question was "environmentally sensitive habitat," then the property owners, including the city, could be required to restore the land exactly where it was degraded.

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This could hamper development plans at the site — especially those for the city's proposed sports park, which relies on an access road to be built on one of these areas.

"Nobody saw this coming," said City Atty. David Hunt. "It's possible it could throw a wrench in the access road and cause a complete reconfiguration of Sunset Ridge Park."

Some of the areas affected may have been a breeding and foraging ground for a threatened bird species, the California gnatcatcher, according to Coastal Commission enforcement analyst Andrew Willis.

"Any of their habitat is critical," he said.

Scientists found gnatcatchers and native coastal sage scrub, including a rare subset called the maritime succulent scrub, during previous environmental assessments, Willis said.

Removing plants and altering the land by dumping gravel and other building materials requires a coastal development permit, according to the letter.

The habitat was on three separate pieces of land — two on the Banning property and one on the Newport Beach park property.

Newport purchased that land in 2006, after the land clearance took place, according to the city. The property is slated for Sunset Ridge Park, a 13.7-acre parcel with two soccer fields and a baseball diamond. After much debate about the park's design, the City Council approved its plans in 2008.

One especially controversial aspect of the park is an access road coming off Coast Highway that the council approved in April. Now, it turns out that the road is planned to traverse one of the contested areas.

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