Court Rules Planned Development of Banning Ranch May Proceed

In Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach (filed 5/20/2015, No. G049691), the California Court of Appeal, Fourth District, held the Environmental Impact Report prepared by the City of Newport Beach for the partial development of Banning Ranch complied with California environmental protection statutes and local ordinances.

Under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”), a city desiring to approve or carry out a project that may have significant effect on the environment must prepare an environmental impact report (“EIR”) designed to provide the public with detailed information about the effect which a proposed project will have on the environment. The California Coastal Act of 1976 provides for heightened protection of environmentally sensitive habitat areas (“ESHA”) defined as any “area in which plant or animal life or their habitats are either rare or especially valuable because of their special nature or role in an ecosystem and which could be easily disturbed or degraded by human activities and developments.”

In 2006, the City of Newport Beach adopted a General Plan for the physical development of the city. The plan specifically identifies Banning Ranch as having significant value as a wildlife habitat and open space resource for citizens. The general plan includes a primary goal of complete preservation of Banning Ranch as open space. To the extent the primary goal cannot be achieved, the plan identifies a secondary goal allowing limited development of Banning Ranch “to fund preservation of the majority of the property as open space.” The plan also requires the City to coordinate any development with the state and federal agencies.

In August 2008, the City of Newport concluded that preservation of the entire Banning Ranch area was not feasible and agreed to entertain a proposal for partial development which preserved the majority of Banning Ranch as open space. The City retained consultants who compiled an incredibly detailed EIR which identified specific types of vegetation, animal life, and habitat for each section of Banning Ranch. The EIR did not expressly identify areas designated ESHA. Further, the City had not obtained assent from the California Coastal Commission, a local regulatory agency. These aspects were met with criticism but the City approved the plan nonetheless.

In August 2012, the Banning Ranch Conservancy, an environmental group, petitioned for a writ of mandate on the grounds the EIR was legally inadequate and the City had violated its own general plan. The Court granted the Petition in part, ruling that the City had failed to comply with the sections of its general plan governing land use, but held the EIR complied with CEQA.

First, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s determination that the City had violated the general plan. The Court noted that the City sent the draft and final EIRs to the California Coastal Commission (and other state and federal environmental agencies) before approval. City staff members also met with the Coastal Commission and responded to concerns. The Court held these efforts satisfied the vague and ambiguous general plan requirement that the City coordinate with federal and state environmental agencies. Accordingly, the City’s conduct did not violate its own general plan.

Second, the Court of Appeal affirmed the ruling regarding the city’s compliance with CEQA. The Court reasoned “CEQA requires an EIR to reflect a good faith effort at full disclosure.” Banning Ranch Conservancy argued the failure to designate ESHA within the EIR violates CEQA. The City responded by noting the determination of whether locations constitute ESHA is a legal determination to be made by the California Coastal Commission. Further, the City noted the EIR contained all the necessary information needed for such determination to be made. The Court agreed with the City, noting on several occasions the great detail and specificity contained within the EIR.

The Court of Appeal’s decision means the City of Newport Beach’s plan for the development of Banning Ranch will proceed as approved. The development includes over 1,000 residential homes, a resort hotel, commercial space, a 4-lane roadway, an active sports park, and parking lots. The project was originally expected to be completed in Spring of 2016 but the litigation will likely result in delay.

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May 26, 2015