NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — The California Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Jan. 4 in a case to decide the fate of Newport Beach’s Banning Ranch.

The Banning Ranch Conservancy alleges that the city of Newport Beach violated the city’s general plan when it approved a development for the 401-acre site.

“We’re hoping that the court will maintain as it has in many cases that a city’s general plan is indeed its land-use constitution and it must be treated as such. Our issue in the whole case is that the city didn’t follow its own general plan, it violated that,” Steve Ray, executive director of Banning Ranch Conservancy, told The Northern California Record.

"The priority for Banning Ranch is that it will remain permanent public open space and park, that’s what the general plan says,” Ray said. “And it says if there is to be any development, then the city must follow all of these procedures to assure that the environment is protected.”

He alleged that when the city approved a development by Newport Banning Ranch of 1,375 homes, a hotel and a shopping center, “the city did not follow these procedures, that’s the crux of the matter … The Coastal Commission wrote a long letter detailing all of the problems with the environmental-impact report and the project, then they offered to assist the city in identifying the environmentally sensitive habitat areas and wetlands.

“The city basically blew off their obligation under the general plan and blew off the Coastal Commission and just declared there’s no ESHA or wetlands on site even with all the evidence that says otherwise.”

“The city’s primary argument was that the city did work with Coastal during the environmental process and the general plan directive is ongoing and includes ‘working with’ the Coastal Commission during the commission’s permitting process,” City Attorney Aaron Harp told The Northern California Record.

“The city argued a deferential standard of review should apply to the city’s interpretation of its general plan,” he added. “This means, unless the city is acting in an arbitrary manner, the court should defer to the city council’s interpretation of the city’s general plan.”

In September, the developer provided a revised proposal, scaled down to about 900 homes, but the Coastal Commission rejected it.

“When it comes to compromise, Banning Ranch was 11 times bigger than it is now. Ninety-one percent of Banning Ranch has already been developed, this is what’s left … The 9 percent that’s left is the compromise,” Ray said. “We do, however, recognize that as the owners of the land, they have the right to develop the land in accordance with the law… We determined that there may be up to 6.7 acres of developable space that is acceptable on the property… We don’t consider that a compromise, we consider that a recognition of the legality of the land.”

The case was first decided in trial court in 2013, where it was found that by approving the project, the city had violated its general plan. This decision was overturned in 2015 by an appeals court.

The California Supreme Court is expected to make its decision within 90 days.

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