Friday, March 31, 2017
S.C.: EIR for Coastal Homes Project Was Inadequate
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
California’s Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the City of Newport Beach failed to adequately consider the environmental effects of a plan to build homes on a large swath of land overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
The California Environmental Quality Act requires that the environmental impact report must identify areas that might qualify as “environmentally sensitive habitat areas,’ or ESHA, under the California Coastal Act of 1976, Justice Carol Corrigan wrote for a unanimous court. Newport Beach didn’t do that in the EIR for a hotly contested proposal to develop a 400-acre piece of land known as Banning Ranch, located in unincorporated territory within the city’s sphere of influence, Corrigan said.
The ruling comes amid years of court battles between environmental groups who want the tract of oil land left as open space and developers who want to build hundreds of million-dollar homes, a hotel and shopping area.
Terry Welsh, president of Banning Ranch Conservancy, said the ruling sends a strong message to cities or counties that they can’t simply ignore the habitat areas, which are protected under state law, and leave them for California coastal regulators to consider.
“The city just almost went out of their way to avoid this discussion,” said Welsh, whose group sued Newport Beach and developers over the environmental review.
Sam Singer, a spokesman for the developers, said the court decision may delay the project by a year or two but won’t derail it. He said requiring cities to identify these areas will complicate coastal development applications down the road.
The city approved the EIR in 2012 for a proposal to build more than 1,300 homes on the land, which is an aging oil field.
Last year, developer Newport Banning Ranch brought before the California Coastal Commission a scaled-down project to build nearly 900 homes. That proposal was denied over concerns about the effect on the sensitive habitat.
The developer later sued.
The city argued before the Supreme Court that CEQA imposes no duty to consider the ESHA requirements of the Coastal Act. It said the EIR sufficiently addressed the conservancy’s concerns by analyzing the impacts of Newport Banning Ranch, including those on habitat, without accounting for potential ESHA.
That argument is “untenable,” Corrigan said, because the city is not “entitled to ignore the fact that Banning Ranch is in the coastal zone.” She cited the state CEQA Guidelines, which require the agency conducting review to “integrate CEQA review with…related environmental review and consultation requirements.”
The city, she wrote, “ignored its obligation to integrate CEQA review with the requirements of the Coastal Act, and gave little consideration to the Coastal Commission’s needs.”
Commission Director’s Comment
Commission Executive Director Jack Ainsworth said the state Supreme Court made a strong decision that underscores requirements for local governments to thoroughly evaluate potential effects to increasingly rare sensitive habitat.
“The primary reason the commission voted to deny the project was because of the impacts to the burrowing owl and gnatcatcher habitat, and loss of wetlands and sensitive vegetation,” he said in a statement.
The city said in a statement that it is much clearer which portions of the property are considered protected habitat now that the state Coastal Commission has reviewed the project.
Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach (Newport Banning Ranch LLC), 17 S.O.S. 1683, was argued in the Supreme Court by John G. McClendon of Leibold McClendon & Mann for the conservancy, Benjamin G. Shatz of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips for the developers, and Whitman F. Manley of Remy Moose Manley for the city.
Copyright 2017, Metropolitan News Company