An Egret fishes in one of the lower ponds on the west side of Banning Ranch property. (DON LEACH, Daily Pilot / April 4, 2012)

This is an open letter to the Newport Beach Planning Commission.

On March 22, my husband and I were among the standing-room-only crowd assembled at City Council Chambers to hear the two agenda items scheduled by the commission for public discussion ("Planners send review onward," March 24).

We were there for the second item, the Banning Ranch draft environmental impact report (DEIR), but we noted a common thread throughout both deliberations: Change is inevitable. Indeed, one of the commissioners justified his vote for the first agenda item, development in Corona del Mar village, by saying that, and I am paraphrasing, things change and we have to adjust.

Change may or may not be inevitable, but change isn't inevitably for the better. Change can benefit one group over another. Change can hurt all concerned. It can take several steps back rather than forward. At its worst, change can cause precious things to be lost in the trade-offs that unrelenting progress demands.

After sitting through six hours of proceedings that night, waiting for decisions on two development projects — one of them Banning Ranch, which is arguably the most ambitious project in Newport Beach history — my husband and I agreed that we could sum up the results with a score card: Goliath: 2, David: 0.

Development won the night — and a very long night it was. The crowds packing the chambers were adamantly against more development. In the case of Corona del Mar, they wanted the area's unique sense of community and architectural traditions respected. In the case of Banning Ranch, a 400-acre parcel of coastal land in West Newport Beach, they wanted an irreplaceable natural resource preserved and protected as open space. The West Newport residents wanted protection from the traffic quagmire the huge development will create and from unsafe levels of air and noise pollution. The health and safety hazards of developing a 70-year-old oil field with nearly 500 wells were also grave concerns.

In Chairman Michael Toerge's preamble to the Banning Ranch public hearing, he noted that public comments could be intimidating, but also emphasized the strict three-minute time period, pointing out yellow and red lights that would assail commenters as they talked. I wonder when Toerge was last limited to three minutes to speak of profound impacts to his life, health and safety. I wonder how effective he would have been in his comments.

Toerge also cautioned people to address the substantive issues of the DEIR, a 7,000-page highly technical document, which may have led to the very atmosphere of intimidation he wanted to avoid. I personally know several people who decided not to speak, believing their comments weren't significant enough. I questioned the validity of my own comment about the 2.6 million cubic yards of contaminated soil to be moved during construction, creating toxic dust exposure even to children playing in the city park next to the development.

Perhaps unwittingly, Toerge also set up unreasonable expectations for the public. How could mere residents possibly meet the bar set by experts who testified on behalf of the development for hours? At the Banning Ranch study sessions, Toerge assured crowds that everyone would be heard at the public hearing. The March 22 meeting was a public hearing. Public comments are not unlike facing a firing squad with three minutes to save your life. Every member of the audience who had a concern should have been urged to come forward.

Esteemed commissioners, I offer these questions for your consideration.

Why were the developers and their consultants allowed unlimited blocks of time to present while opposing groups were denied them, even during public comments?

The Corona del Mar opposition was granted a block of time. Why not Banning Ranch, a development that will negatively impact the entire region?

Why did the commission defer to the city staff on virtually every question raised, including staff's "opinion" that the 19th Street bridge was still on the Master Plan of Arterial Highways? The bridge was removed at the March 12 Orange County Transportation Authority board meeting.

Why was the DEIR deemed fair and adequate without a traffic analysis to reflect new highly negative impacts?

Most significantly, when can the welfare of those severely impacted by development be denied in favor of public benefits, i.e., tax revenues and project amenities? To what extent is the commission or any other government body willing to make West Newport-Mesa collateral damage to the greater good?

I respectfully submit that the impacts were not "fairly and adequately resolved" and the public was not given reasonable or equitable access at the March 22 public hearing. I ask that the DEIR recommendation be rescinded and another public hearing scheduled. Thank you for your consideration.

Suzanne Forster

Newport Beach

The writer is a member of the Banning Ranch Conservancy.

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