Banning Ranch Conservancy
An aerial view of the 400-acre parcel known as Banning Ranch, which contains many Native ancestral and cultural remains as well as being the last open space remaining in Orange County, California.

Sacred Site Endangered by Development in Southern California to Be Considered at Public Hearing

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

A group of Native Americans and environmentalists are fighting to protect a 400-acre property from development in Newport Beach, California. Known as the Banning Ranch, the property is the last remaining open space in Orange County. Environmental activists are concerned about sensitive habitats, while Native people are concerned about protecting ancestral and cultural remains.

A lawsuit was filed in 2012 by the nonprofit Banning Ranch Conservancy against the City of Newport Beach, claiming the city’s approval of the project violates the city’s general plan and the California Environmental Quality Act. It awaits a court date at the California Supreme Court, according to Terry Welsh, President of the Banning Ranch Conservancy.

Meanwhile, plans for the development (known as Newport Banning Ranch, which includes 895 homes, a shopping mall, a hotel and a hostel) are proceeding through the state permitting process. The development plans have gone through numerous revisions to comply with state law, the California Coastal Act, on developing coastal properties. The California Coastal Commission has the final authority to grant a permit.

According to the CCC’s staff report, eight Native American cultural sites have been identified at Banning Ranch, indicating widespread use of the land by Tongva and Acjachemen people who know the site as Genga. The sites are so culturally significant that three of them were listed as sacred land by the California State Native American Heritage Commission. They are also eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places and the California Register of Historic Resources.

“Developers always ignore ancestral lands, the sites of villages, ceremonies, and Native life,” Anthony Morales, chairman of the Gabrieleno Tongva, told ICTMN.

The property has also been the site of oil production since the 1940s. According to the Los Angeles Times, more than 400 wells on the property are now defunct, but the project will include continued oil production on 15 acres.

“There is a well established pattern. The developers will say that the site is already destroyed [from the oil drilling],” Morales said. “But there were burials discovered there in the 1930s, and there will likely be more burials discovered.”

Patricia Martz, president of the California Cultural Resources Preservation Alliance, agreed with Morales. Even the CCC’s report confirms the likelihood of finding additional Native American cultural resources.

“The cultural sites will be impacted by the development,” Martz said. “And while the land has been polluted by oil production Native people believe that doesn’t take away from the spiritual value of the place.”

According to Martz, there is a conflict in the way the Coastal Commission views how the cultural sites should be handled.

“The Coastal Commission’s staff report recommends ‘testing for significance’ of cultural deposits including skeletal remains and grave-related artifacts and other cultural and religious elements of the sites,” she said. “Testing for significance is based on scientific procedures that are highly destructive and aren’t consistent with Native American values. We are requesting that the requirements for the testing plan be revised to ensure that the known archeological sites are not damaged further. Overall we are advocating for non-approval of the project.”

Some of the worst damage to the sites is expected to occur during the cleanup process. Martz said that she hoped the cost for cleanup would have been prohibitive enough to halt the development, but that doesn’t seem likely at this point.

A public hearing of the Coastal Commission for the permit to develop the site was scheduled for May 12 but was pulled from the CCC’s agenda by the developers at the last minute for undisclosed reasons.

“It’s possible that the withdrawal has something to do with the fact that the developers failed to properly consult with the Native nations involved," Pat Martz said. "They also failed to adequately consult with California Fish and Wildlife. But they’ve withdrawn before and came back with revised plans. This is nowhere near over."

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