Newport Banning Ranch Land Development Project

The Newport Banning Ranch developer’s proposal is to build 895 homes, a resort hotel, and retail complex on the Banning Ranch mesa near Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach, and Newport Beach, just east of the outlet of the Santa Ana River in Southern California. This has become a legal battle between Aera Energy (who co-owns the property) and the California Coastal Commission (who regulates development along California’s coastline).

The Newport Banning Ranch developers call the project partners “the beyond green team” and promises to restore the land ravaged by seventy years of oil production. In 1998, Aera Energy and two other companies were the subject of a US EPA administrative order demanding an end to the dumping of concrete rubble and dirt on Banning Ranch wetlands in violation of the Clean Water Act. Three years later, the Santa Ana Region Water Quality Control Board ordered Aera Energy and others to clean up the wetlands fill, as well as soil that was contaminated when workers disposed of liquid oil waste in unlined pits.

Aera Energy removed the fill, installed monitoring wells, and agreed to restore nearly three acres of wetlands as part of its planned project. Separately, Aera Energy and Newport Banning Ranch developers agreed to restore more than 18 acres of habitat to satisfy California Coastal Commission orders. Last year, the California Coastal Commission recommended denial of a somewhat larger version of the project after finding that, despite some 70 years of oil production, Banning Ranch was home to rare plants and wildlife and has one of the few relatively intact wetland-bluff ecosystems left on Southern California’s heavily urbanized coastline.

At Banning Ranch, Aera Energy is partnering with Brooks Street, a California real estate company, and Cherokee Investment Partners, a private equity manager that invests in brownfield remediation and bought the other half of the parcel in 2005. Under the latest plans, Newport Banning Ranch would permanently set aside 310 acres — much of it wetlands that can’t be developed – as natural open space open to the public. Oil production would continue in two small areas to tap remaining reserves. Estimates show it will cost $30 million to clean up the land, which is dotted with rusting oil pipes and tanks, pump jacks and more than 400 abandoned wells.