Santa Ana Council Saves Historic Orange Orchard — for Now

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The Santa Ana City Council last week placed the Sexlinger Orchard on the city’s historic registry and thus protected one of the last small slices of Orange County’s agricultural past from demolition — at least for the eight-month waiting period before development can begin.

The orchard’s owners — Concordia University and Orange Lutheran High School — want to develop the land. In April the Santa Ana Historic Resources Commission decided against including the orchard in its registry.

The two educational institutions have owned the land on Santa Clara Avenue since 2006, when Martha Sexlinger willed it to them. They want to demolish the Valencia orange orchard and build houses on the five-acre property.

In 2007, Empire Homes proposed a 24-house development on the land but then went bankrupt during the financial crisis of 2008. In 2010, TAVA Development Co. proposed the same development plan and is still negotiating with the two schools.

Meanwhile, community members have been fighting to save the remaining 250 trees and the 1913 home on the property. The group, Save Our Orchard Coalition (SOOC), wants to create a center for urban agriculture, showcasing produce that was widely sold when Orange County was mainly agricultural.

“We did step by step what we felt we needed to do so ultimately there would be historical recognition of the orchard and the farm house,” said Nick Spain, a founding board member of SOOC.

The effort has been difficult for SOOC, because they’re campaigning against the wishes of the property owners and the historic commission ruling. The education institutions have not responded to purchase offers from the community group nor did they return calls last week for comment.

“I think they [the historic commission] were really influenced by the property owners’ wishes to not have it registered,” said Jeannie Gillett, SOOC coordinator.

The city can overrule the commission’s decision, however, which it did on June 4 with a 4-1 vote. Once the site is placed on the registry, it is the commission’s responsibility to seek all feasible alternatives to demolition, Spain said.

“We’re doing something that’s important here,” said Councilman Vincent Sarmiento after the council’s vote.

Council members were persuaded by the numerous community members who came to protest the commission’s decision as well as by letters from a number of prominent preservation organizations throughout the state.

Wayne Donaldson of the state Office of Historic Preservation wrote that the orchard would be eligible for listing in the national registry, giving it far more protection than the city registry would.

A site cannot be placed on the state or national registry if the property owners do not wish to have it listed, but Spain and the SOOC believe their continued efforts will only strengthen their case.

SOOC has eight months to do all it can to raise awareness and funds to purchase the land. “We don’t know exactly what the property value is. They haven’t offered what would be a fair offer for them. No one in the city seems to know,” Spain said.

The owners “basically haven’t responded to anybody. They’re probably regrouping and figuring out their strategy,” Spain said.

Mayor Miguel Pulido told SOOC on Monday that the proverbial ball was in their court.

“All of you have an opportunity to work extremely hard. I would implore you to find every preservationist. … Make it a battle call,” Pulido said.

You can reach Lauren Tyler at elysetlr@gmail.com.

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