Brown: OC Supervisors Must Protect Great Park Property from Mindless Development

Fifteen years ago, Orange County voters enthusiastically embraced a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by passing Measure W. This measure set the terms for a future “Great Park” in Orange County on the decommissioned Marine Corps Army Station El Toro. San Diego has Balboa Park, Los Angeles has Griffith Park, and Orange County laid the groundwork for a landmark park of its own; a park that would provide critical open space, wildlife habitat, and a protected space for institutions like Cal State Fullerton and the Second Harvest Food Bank for our rapidly-growing region.

Since voters passed Measure W, control of the old El Toro base land was transferred from Orange County to the City of Irvine. Irvine has shown a steadfast commitment to the vision laid out in Measure W, most recently by adopting a Wildlife Corridor Plan in 2013 to provide a linkage for bobcats, coyotes and other native wildlife from the Laguna Greenbelt to the Santa Ana Mountains.

But the Orange County Board of Supervisors is on the verge of undermining this vision for a flagship park in our region by adopting a misguided development plan with Lowe Enterprises Real Estate Group for a 107-acre parcel on the El Toro property. This new agreement would allow Lowe Enterprises to build at least one million square feet of office space, nearly 2,000 residential units, 200,000 square feet of retail space and a 242-unit hotel on the former base. A commercial development of this sort is in direct conflict with the overarching plans for a Great Park at El Toro and will only add congestion to this already over-developed region.

The County has developed a dubious land use theory that would allow this project to move forward as proposed, despite the voters’ clear intentions for this property to be included in our Great Park. When the El Toro base was annexed by the City of Irvine, the City agreed to give the County the property. Because Measure W was already in place when this transfer happened, that should have been the end of it: The property should be developed in a manner that is consistent with Measure W.

The parcel that is now slated to become the El Toro 100-Acre was originally designated to support institutional facilities, not another cookie-cutter mixed use development. But now the County is claiming that because the property is now part of Irvine, Measure W no longer applies.

The County can’t have it both ways. Either the City of Irvine’s land use rules apply, in which case the wildlife corridor and open space provisions must be honored, or Measure W holds. Either way, developments that prioritize financial gain over protecting Orange County’s limited remaining open space simply should not be allowed.

The Supervisors will consider approving the El Toro 100-Acre Development Plan at its November 14th meeting. The plan leaves decision-making authority over the details of the development to the County’s unelected Chief Real Estate Officer and a board of advisors of his choice, eliminating public input on the highly controversial project as it moves forward. This approach flies in the face of California environmental law and makes a mockery of the democratic process.

As problematic as the El Toro 100-Acre Development Plan is, the Board of Supervisors will soon consider an even more troubling development proposal. The West Alton Project is also located on the old El Toro base, but this project directly abuts the wildlife corridor. If the County takes the same approach with West Alton as it seems inclined to take on the El Toro 100-Acre project, it could undermine the future of wildlife in 22,000 acres of Orange County coastal parks and preserves.

The wildlife corridor that runs through the old base is critical to the long-term survival of dozens of native species in our heavily urbanized region. The Board of Supervisors should take the long view, uphold the will of the voters, and do its part to support the vision of a flagship regional park.

The El Toro property was intended to be developed in a way that is consistent with the public’s vision for a Great Park, a centerpiece of civic life in our region. If the Board of Supervisors adopts this proposed plan, it will thwart the will of the voters and threaten a wildlife corridor that represents at least $30 million in public and private investment. Orange County residents deserve to see the vision for our Great Park become a reality. We’re counting on our elected officials to make that happen.

The agenda staff report for El Toro Development Plan being presented at the November 14, 2017 Board of Supervisor’s Meeting can be found here.

Elisabeth Brown is President of Laguna Greenbelt, Inc., a grassroots organization that has worked ceaselessly to protect wildlife habitat in Orange County since 1968.

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