Facing pressure by local activists and a lack of information from city staff, Garden Grove officials have pushed a decision on handing off one of its last open green spaces to a for-profit hotel developer to next week, on the same day a court hearing is scheduled to determine whether the city is legally authorized to do so.

At their next public meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 17, Garden Grove council members will decide whether to lease the 100-acre Willowick Golf Course – owned by the city but located in west Santa Ana — to hotel development company McWhinney over the next five decades, with currently no information from city staff on exactly how much in dollars the developer would be paying annually for the property that sits in a working class, predominantly Latino area.

Before members of the public took to the podium to object to the potential deal in public comments, Garden Grove City Manager Scott Stiles requested the Council hold off on voting until next week.

“Staff are not ready to present a final document to council members and we want to make sure we give you sufficient time to look over that,” Stiles said. The Council agreed and voted to delay the discussion.

The actual lease for the site is with MWillowick Land LLC, which is affiliated with McWhinney but doesn’t yet have any filings with the Secretary of State and was set up five days before the contract’s scheduled vote.

City staff have given no exact dollar amount for how much McWhinney would be paying the city to lease the site – only that McWhinney would pay 85 percent of what it charged third party developers it would lease out parcels of the land to. There’s also nothing in staff’s proposed terms sheet between the city and developer about a rent payment schedule, property taxes, or lease renewal.

When asked after the meeting about an exact dollar amount the developer would pay – Stiles said those are all details he hopes staff can get together and get addressed by the next meeting.

“Those are all the sort of things to get in a complete document … those are the sort of things we want to make sure we can explain to people,” he said. “We’re trying to get everything done.”

He added: “We want it to be complete, to not have any holes in it and be something they can consider.”

It’s unknown what exactly will be built on the site when McWhinney leases out certain parcels of the land to other developers – something they would be allowed to do under the current proposed terms sheet for McWhinney’s ground lease.

The Willowick Golf Course. Credit: BRANDON PHO, Voice of OC

Residents of the surrounding Santa Anita neighborhood in west Santa Ana – who have organized this year under an activist coalition called Rise Up Willowick – say any for-profit development on the rare green space would raise the surrounding property values and in turn raise rents, driving gentrification and pushing generations of families out of the area.

The Council’s next meeting on Dec. 17 is on the same day a Los Angeles County Court judge is set to decide whether or not Garden Grove can legally lease the land to a master developer without first considering all affordable housing or public use options for the site under the state Surplus Land Act – a state land use law that Rise Up Willowick members and local residents say the city is violating.

The hearing is the result of a lawsuit brought by the Rise Up Willowick coalition and led by local organizer and public land advocate Flor Barajas-Tena, which seeks to force the city to change course and apply the state land use law to the golf course.

Barajas-Tena and Rise Up Willowick scored a temporary restraining order on the golf course on Nov. 26, where the city can’t finalize any agreement with McWhinney before the Dec. 17 court hearing.

If the judge that day rules in Santa Anita residents’ favor, Garden Grove officials wouldn’t be able to follow through on the deal with the developer.

Though the Council delayed the vote Tuesday night, around 35 Santa Anita residents and Rise Up Willowick organizers still protested the deal and asked the Council to dissolve the negotiations.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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