Banning Ranch one step closer to becoming a nature preserve

The non-profit Trust for Public Land on Friday completed the purchase of an oil field located on the coastal bluffs of Newport Beach, guaranteeing the property will be redeveloped and kept open space.

The 384-acre Banning Ranch estate, whose future has been at the center of an intense decades-long struggle in Orange County, stands as Southern California’s last stretch of vacant coastal land.

For years developers had viewed the multi-million dollar tract – with its expansive views of the Pacific Ocean – as a prime location for homes, shopping and at one point a boutique hotel. However, conservationists saw an opportunity for rare open spaces in a county of nearly 3.2 million people.

Originally a cattle and sheep farm, the country has been an active oil field since the 1940s. Oil wells, pipelines and other equipment are still scattered across the property, which is surrounded by a chain link fence that not many residents have ventured beyond. But as of Friday noon, oil operations officially shut down, said Guillermo Rodriguez, state director of the Trust for Public Land.

“It’s surreal that after years of trial and tribulation, nearly 400 hectares of land is now publicly owned,” Rodriguez said. “This is a tremendous opportunity to improve habitat and wildlife restoration in an urban setting.”

The Trust for Public Land and the Banning Ranch Conservancy worked for years to secure $97 million in public and private funding to purchase the property from AERA Energy and Cherokee Investment Partners.

Their efforts were aided by a $50 million donation from longtime Orange County residents Frank and Joan Randall. The Wildlife Conservation Board, the California Natural Resources Agency, the State Coastal Conservancy, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife also provided funds to purchase the land.

The Banning Ranch is home to approximately 100 acres of swamps, mudflats and riparian scrub and 67 acres of coastal sagebrush that provides habitat for sensitive species such as burrowing owls, fairy shrimp, peregrine falcons and the federally endangered California mosquitocatcher.

“For more than two decades, the property has fallen into complete disrepair,” said Rep. Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Irvine), who helped secure federal funding for the purchase. “And I think we’re on the verge of making it a jewel, not just for Orange County, but for all of Southern California.”

The former owners will be responsible for the clean-up of oil production on the land, a process that could take up to three years. As the site is redeveloped, project managers plan to work with the nearby community to create a vision for the property’s future.

Conservationists envisage it becoming a public park and wildlife sanctuary that would give Californians access to the coast with hiking trails, camping and picnic areas. They also plan to pay homage to the Native American tribes who lived on the property.

The preservation of the property as a green space marks a key milestone in the state’s climate goals, which include protecting 30% of California’s land and coastal waters by 2030.

Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said the sale “shows the power of grassroots organization and what happens when a coalition of passionate local civic organizations, residents and community leaders work together to protect open spaces.” Banning Ranch one step closer to becoming a nature preserve

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