June 22, 2024

Newport-Mesa considering what to do with 11-acre parcel near Banning Ranch preserve

Most would jump at the chance to own 11.36 acres of coastally zoned Orange County real estate, but Newport-Mesa Unified School District, which has owned such a parcel for decades, is considering the possibility of liquidating the acreage.

That’s just one scenario for what could happen to the property, which sits adjacent to Banning Ranch, a 384-acre erstwhile oilfield being cleaned up by conservationists and preserved as open space under the new moniker Randall Preserve.

Since October, a citizens advisory group — the Banning Ranch Surplus Land Committee — has been learning more about the parcel, its history and zoning and discussing possible options for the site, located at the western terminus of Costa Mesa’s 16th Street.

At end of West 16th Street in Costa Mesa sits an 11.36-acre parcel of land  owned by Newport-Mesa Unified School District.

At end of West 16th Street in Costa Mesa sits an unused 11.36-acre parcel owned by Newport-Mesa Unified School District. The district is currently determining what to do with the surplus land.

(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Panelists are due to make a recommendation to the school district’s Board of Trustees in the coming months, and the public will have an opportunity to provide input during a Feb. 5 meeting.

Newport-Mesa Unified purchased the property from Security First National Bank in 1965, paying $473,999 with the thought a school might one day be built on the property, according to Assistant Supt. Jeff Trader. But in the decades that followed, the prospect of developing the land became more complicated.

Today, the site is subject to the Coastal Act of 1976 and falls under the jurisdiction of the California Coastal Commission, meaning agency review and approval is necessary before any ground can be broken. Meanwhile, a shrinking student population hardly necessitates additional school facilities.

“We are, like essentially all school districts in California, experiencing declining enrollment, and enrollments are expected to decline [further] in the future,” Trader said. “Because of that, we’re looking at properties we have that possibly could be determined surplus, and this is one of them.”

The district is currently using a portion of the site for storage and pays around $20,000 each year for basic maintenance of the grounds, according to district spokeswoman Annette Franco.

Assembled in October through an application and selection process, the 11-person Banning Ranch Surplus Land Committee comprises members who represent a cross-section of constituent interests and backgrounds. Panelists convened in November and December to review and analyze NMUSD’s options, which include retaining the property and keeping it vacant or building on it or selling or leasing the site to an interested party.

A third public meeting — on Feb. 5 at 5:30 p.m. at NMUSD’s district headquarters in Costa Mesa — will be the last opportunity for community members to learn about the land and provide input to the committee before it drafts a resolution compiling its recommendations to submit to school district’s Board of Trustees.

Trader said panelists have established a priority list that places ground lease and development at the highest and best use value of the land at the top, followed by a sale of the property.

An aerial shot of Banning Ranch, located along Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach.

An aerial shot of Banning Ranch, located along Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

“The committee’s recommendations will be fairly open,” he said, adding that it will ultimately be up to school board members to decide which actions to take.

If the district were to lease all or a portion of the property, any development plans would have to be reviewed by the city of Costa Mesa. A surplus land sale, which Trader said hasn’t happened since the 1980s or ’90s, would be handled within Newport-Mesa Unified.

Some in the local community, however, say they’d like to see a different possibility prioritized — a no-build option.

Terry Welsh is president of the Coastal Corridor Alliance, formerly named the Banning Ranch Conservancy, which began as an effort to preserve the larger Newport Beach property but has since morphed into a wider conservation effort to preserve parcels adjacent to Randall Preserve.

Welsh and other volunteers with the nonprofit are very familiar with the Newport-Mesa Unified property and would like the land committee and district officials to consider keeping the site as open space that might also serve an educational purpose.

The property, he added, contains rare vernal pools that, when exposed to sufficient rainfall, fill up with fairy shrimp that serve as a valuable food source for migrating and foraging birds. And while it may not be a home to endangered species, several notable animals, including burrowing owls and gnatcatchers, have been spied in the vicinity.

Preserving the site, especially as ecologists work to clean up the soil on Randall Preserve in preparation for site work that will make the larger property a public benefit, would be one way to expand conservation efforts in Orange County.

“We would love to see the school district utilize it and make it a nature lab or something like that. You could bring kids out there and show them a vernal pool,” Welsh said Thursday. “This is a treasure in our community — why not teach young people about that and teach them to be stewards?”

Welsh said he applied to serve on the committee, which was seeking someone with environmental expertise but was not selected by the district. The Coastal Corridor Alliance has been circulating a letter seeking backing for an open-space option that has so far garnered about 150 signatures. Members plan to appear at the next committee meeting, likely their last opportunity to be heard.

“I wish there was a true, hardcore Randall Preserve activist on that committee who, at every meeting, would stand up and say we need to save that space,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to work toward.”

The next meeting of the Banning Ranch Surplus Land Committee takes place Feb. 5 at 5:30 p.m. at Newport-Mesa Unified School District headquarters, 2985 Bear St., Costa Mesa.

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