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Conservancy remains optimistic in open-space effort

Getting enough money to preserve the 400 acres of Banning Ranch from development is an obstacle-ridden path with scarce funding, experts say.

July 24, 2012|By Mike Reicher

As Banning Ranch developers prepare their application for the California Coastal Commission, conservationists are still hoping they will someday be able to buy the ranch's 400 acres and preserve it all as open space.

But after Monday night's 6-0 vote by the Newport Beach City Council, the ranch's owners are one step closer to 1,375 homes and other land uses, approvals that would make the West Newport property much more valuable than it is today as open space and oil fields.

Banning Ranch Conservancy leaders say they aren't daunted. They hope a $5-million anonymous gift announced Monday will be "a game-changer" and "a catalyst for more private donations" that get them closer to the sale price. In 2008 the land was pegged to be valued between $138 million and $158 million.

But the conservancy faces many obstacles. The land owners have a list of conditions they say haven't been met, and experts say the conservancy has a slim chance of raising enough money in the first place, considering the scarce government and private funds available today for open-space acquisitions.

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Furthermore, there's competition. More prominent California open-space conservation movements are also competing for some of the same funds.

"Nobody's sitting around with any significant amount of money," Ronald Buss, a real estate consultant specializing in such appraisals, said Tuesday.

Buss, who assessed the ranch in 2008, said assembling a team of donors would be "exceedingly difficult in today's conditions."

Banning Ranch, which stretches from West Coast Highway to 19th Street in Costa Mesa, is one of the last remaining large privately owned coastal properties that's undeveloped in Southern California, and the city's general plan says that the land would preferably be kept as open space. The plan also allows the council to approve the development while people collect enough money to buy the land from the owners, a consortium that includes Exxon Mobil subsidiary Aera Energy.

"Nothing precludes an interested party from submitting a bona fide offer," said Mike Mohler, president of Newport Banning Ranch LLC, the developer.

A list of conditions that Mohler presented at Monday's meeting may preclude some buyers. He said the conservancy would have to show insurance that would indemnify the current owners after the oil wells are abandoned, "in the event corners were cut or the site was not fully remediated."

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