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Environmentalists: School district fence cuts through owl habitat

A fence erected near Banning Ranch for safety reasons drags Newport-Mesa into controversy over development that it has long tried to avoid.

May 31, 2013|By Jeremiah Dobruck
  • Environmentalists trying to keep Banning Ranch as open space have also taken issue with a chain-link fence the Newport-Mesa Unified School District built next to the property that cuts through habitat of a rare owl.
Environmentalists trying to keep Banning Ranch as open… (Courtesy Cindy…)

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District years ago tried to sidestep any environmental controversy over the proposed Banning Ranch housing development in Newport Beach.

After all, the district has no real say in whether the project will go forward, Deputy Supt. Paul Reed said.

Newport-Mesa owns just a sliver of land the developer would need to widen a road to handle increased traffic that would be generated by the 1,375 new homes proposed for the area near the border of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa.

But as interest in and opposition to Banning Ranch's development has grown, a fence the district erected next to the property has pulled school officials into a small piece of the environmental battle and elicited a chiding from the California Coastal Commission.

In December, the district built a chain-link fence around a little more than 11 acres of property it owns at the end of Whittier Avenue, adjacent to the proposed 400-acre project.

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The fence cuts through the habitat for a rare burrowing owl, one of many rare species in Banning Ranch, local environmentalists say.

"Burrowing owls, like their name suggests, live in burrows," said Terry Welsh, president of the Banning Ranch Conservancy. "The fence went up really close to a couple of areas where they are known to burrow."

Costa Mesa resident Cindy Black has observed the birds, she said. She saw one days before the fence went up.

Black and Welsh have both campaigned to keep all of Banning Ranch open space.

The conservancy has sued to try to stop the development, which was approved by the Newport Beach City Council in July.

"It's the environmental story of this generation," Welsh said. "It's like the Bolsa Chica of Newport Beach, in a way."

Reed said the school district's fence went up precisely because of such intense interest around the development. He said he wanted to avoid any liability stemming from people walking through the district's property next to the site. And as the deal has progressed, so has the foot traffic.

"It is not the safest area; it is fairly wild," Reed said.

The district had anticipated push-back from the conservancy and other development opponents and tried to shield the school district from it in 2011.

"I never like putting the school district as the target of something over which it really can't control the outcome," Reed said.

That November, the school board approved a land swap with the developers pending final approval of the project.

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