In December 1994, the County of Orange filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This painful decision sent shockwaves through Wall Street, other local jurisdictions, municipal bond buyers, and interestingly—park advocates. The debt repayment structure that evolved raided funds from then named Orange County parks department, Harbors, Beaches and Parks. Park staff, morale, budgets, and future planned acquisitions were hit hard.
In the wake of the loss of funds, activists quickly realized a parks focused support group was needed. Hence, the non-profit Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks (FHBP) formed in 1997. Ten leaders from different conservation organizations joined the fledgling board to create a new consolidated approach to strengthen and coordinate the voice for parks, water, open space, and environmental education advocacy groups across the County. Then Parks Director Bob Fisher became the group’s founding Executive Director. And, in perfect timing with the July 2017 final debt repayment by the County, FHBP is about to celebrate its 20th Anniversary. See details below.
By 2000, FHBP created a greenprint called the Green Vision Map .
This map documented protected lands and acquisition opportunities. FHBP Co-Founder Jean Watt met with organizations and residents throughout the County to get their conservation project on the map. The Green Vision Map became an acquisition wish list as well as a record of accomplishments.
This Map became the focal point for the conservation community, local jurisdictions, and agencies tasked with protecting our wildlife and habitats. After grant funding was received, FHBP hired consultants. Two mother-daughter duos of Jean and Terry Watt and Claire and Melanie Schlotterbeck formed the early Green Vision Team. Together, they coalesced the Green Vision Coalition, which now includes around 80 conservation and community groups. The collective vision is to find or create funding for parks, water quality, and open spaces.
Through various workshops the team educated activists and it became clear an opportunity was about to unfold.
In 2005, the Coalition appointed a team of negotiators to see if something could be included to benefit the environment within the Orange County Transportation Authority’s (OCTA) upcoming renewal of a sales tax measure, Measure M2. The negotiations proved successful as a comprehensive mitigation program In 2005, the Coalition appointed a team of negotiators to see if something could be included to benefit the environment within the Orange County Transportation Authority’s (OCTA) upcoming renewal of a sales tax measure, Measure M2. The negotiations proved successful as a comprehensive mitigation program, to more effectively address the impacts of the proposed 13 freeway projects, was incorporated into the measure. Roughly 30 coalition members supported M2 because it included $243.5 million for conservation action. Due to FHBP’s leadership, its coalition, and non-traditional partnership with OCTA, a decade into that program, over 1,300 acres are permanently protected and nearly 350 acres are being restored.
This mitigation program is now modeled throughout the state and nation. The good news is there is more money to spend, so additional conservation will occur in the County.
This success set the stage for FHBP to launch into the land use, transportation, and policy arena. As important legislation passed the California Legislature and as the bond freeze stopped park funding, the organization saw new opportunities. FHBP began focusing on other ways to protect important landscapes. It published numerous useful and detailed toolkits, like the
General Plan Resource Directory, Healthy Communities Toolkit, Park and Walk Scores, an Urban Parks Sufficiency Study, and most recently Park Benefits factsheets. Distribution to cities and agencies has increased the reach, raised awareness of policy tools, and formed even more new partnerships.
Additional state legislation provided an opportunity to engage with the Orange County Council of Governments (OCCOG). This involvement, coupled with the M2 Mitigation Program success, allowed FHBP to draft and collaborate with OCCOG to put the first conservation policy in a local Sustainable Community Strategy. In short, land conservation became an approved way to meet statewide goals to get vehicles off the road. This local success widened FHBP’s aim to include the regional, six-countywide area. Following Orange County’s lead, the Southern California Association of Governments adopted the state’s second conservation policy in its sustainability plan — this time with a multi-county FHBP-led coalition behind it.
Policies aside, FHBP has never lost sight of its original mission and continues to work closely with OC Parks. Board members launched a quarterly meeting with the OC Parks Director to provide an opportunity for supporters of the regional park system to meet with and discuss various issues and concerns. In addition, FHBP has served as the fiscal sponsor for numerous grassroots environmental organizations that are “boots on the ground” working to protect landscapes across the County.
To further support these focused efforts, FHBP has signed on to many lawsuits seeking conservation outcomes. In fact, several lawsuits were victorious—with one recent decision upholding the tenets of a General Plan at the California Supreme Court.
Strategizing with local groups, collaborating with local, regional, and state elected officials, and maintaining credibility through consistent actions has created a seat at the table for FHBP. We often testify before the Board of Supervisors, Water and Sanitation Districts, and local agencies to support good policies or oppose decisions the organization feels are detrimental to the environment, use poor or unsustainable planning practices. These 20 years have been full of conservation successes, so it is time to celebrate our Open Spaces and Wild Places.
You are invited to attend our celebration. On Saturday, October 14th from 5:30 – 8:30 PM at the Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center in Newport Beach. Please join FHBP, its board, partners, and friends to toast our successes. In addition to a wonderful silent auction, the event includes two unique features. The Nature of Wildworks will bring its ambassadors so that guests may learn about the wildlife and get photographed with birds of prey, a fox, snake, and more.
And, a brief video highlighting conservation successes from the Upper Newport Bay to Bolsa Chica, Laguna Coast to Chino Hills State Park will debut and provide guests with a glimpse of our work and that of our partners. Tickets can be purchased online in advance to ensure a spot, or if space is available, tickets will be sold at the door.
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Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org