Courtesy Banning Ranch Conservancy
This tract of land known as the Banning Ranch in Southern California has been spared from a 400-acre residential development project, partly because of indigenous concerns.

Landslide Vote Quashes 400-Acre Development Project in Southern CA, Saves Sacred Sites

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Almost as soon as it began unfolding, the standoff over the routing of the Dakota Access oil pipeline under the Missouri River began having an impact on tribal consultation elsewhere.

In a stunning victory for nine Southern California indigenous nations, on September 7 the California Coastal Commission (CCC) rejected a permit to build a massive commercial and residential development in Newport Beach, California. The 400-acre property, known as the Banning Ranch, contains numerous sites considered sacred by the local Tonva and Acjachemen people, who know the land as Genga.

The permit was rejected in a landslide 9–1 vote, ending a 20-year battle, reported The Orange County Register. And at least one commissioner cited the events at Standing Rock in emphasizing the need to consult with tribes.

“This is a great decision, for once,” said Anthony Morales, tribal chairman of the Gabrielino Tongva, one of many tribal and environmental groups opposing the development. “It was obvious that it was too premature for the project to go before the Coastal Commission.”

The development would have involved 895 homes, a mall, hotel and a hostel, in one of the last remaining open spaces on the Southern California coast. The decades-long battle was fought by environmentalists focused on preserving a wildlife habitat, while Native peoples recognized the site as a place of deep cultural significance and widespread historical use. There are at least eight sites that the Coastal Commission recognizes as cultural resources on the property, at least three of which are eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places and the California Register of Historic Resources.

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

The denial of the permit means that the builders of the project, known as Newport Banning Ranch, are denied the project as it is currently designed. However, if the project were to be redesigned to fit within a 20-acre footprint, it could potentially move forward in the future, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The Banning Ranch property has been contaminated from decades of oil production, and development would have necessitated an extremely expensive cleanup process. In the 1930s, during the heyday of oil production in Southern California, burials were discovered there, and tribal leaders and other experts predicted a high likelihood of more burials being uncovered during construction.

A broad coalition of Native peoples and their advocates have been actively engaged in the battle to defeat the development. Senate Bill 18 and Assembly Bill 52 are California laws that require greater tribal consultation as well as the consideration of tribal cultural resources in development projects.

The protection of Indigenous cultural sites in Southern California is one of the biggest challenges facing Native nations, especially in the overdeveloped coastal regions. But in recent years tribal cultural resources have weighed more heavily in CCC decisions.

“The future of the site is unknown. We know that for any project moving forward, the Coastal Commission made it clear at the hearing that the developer must work with all nine of the Native nations and MLDs [most likely descendants] on the Native American Heritage Commission contact list,” Angela Mooney D’Arcy of the Sacred Places Institute said.

She noted that at least one commissioner had referenced Standing Rock as a particular indication that Native nations must be properly consulted, and another had pointed out that “given the possibility of impacting Native American sacred sites, the commission must get it right because there is no second chance when it comes to destruction of cultural resources,” she said.

“At least three of the nine commissioners who voted to deny the permit indicated that the need to meaningfully engage with Native nations is critical to project approval,” Mooney D’Arcy told Indian Country Today Media Network. “The CCC staff worked diligently to make sure that Native nations were informed and up-to-date on the project, despite [a] seven year gap in communications between the developer and Native nations.”

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