Garden Grove city officials today will decide whether one of the last remaining open green spaces in a working-class area will be handed to a for-profit developer for decades, despite an ongoing local court battle over whether city officials actually have the legal authority to do so.

The Garden Grove City Council at today’s public meeting will consider leasing the 100-acre Willowick Golf Course over a 55-year period to McWhinney, a development company that built the Great Wolf Lodge in Garden Grove and a number of hotels across Orange County.

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.

It’s unclear exactly how much money McWhinney would be paying the city to lease the site. There’s also nothing in the proposed terms sheet between the city and developer about a rent payment schedule, property taxes, or lease renewal.

It’s also unknown what exactly will be built on the site when McWhinney leases out certain parcels of the land to other developers.

Staff at the City Manager’s office didn’t return requests for comment Monday.

City staff in their report say McWhinney would put down $2 million for the land upfront, and from there would lease the land out to developers. For rent, McWhinney would pay the city 85% of what they charge tenants developing on the site.

Local public land activist Flor Barajas-Tena said the potential rent payments outlined in the city staff report are “based on theoreticals.”

“How can you enter into a ground lease for such a long time without knowing what the development project is?” said Barajas-Tena, who’s leading a lawsuit seeking to force Garden Grove to apply the state Surplus Land Act on the golf course.

Under that law, if a city deems property it owns ‘surplus land,’ city officials must first consider all affordable housing or public use options for the site before shopping it to a for-profit developer.

Critics say turning the golf course into for-profit apartments or an urban hotspot would drive gentrification and displacement from the surrounding historic and predominantly-Latino Santa Anita neighborhood, and that the space should go to the community instead.

The Santa Anita neighborhood located on the west side of Santa Ana. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

After filing their initial lawsuit on Oct. 7, Barajas-Tena and her team secured a temporary restraining order on Nov. 26 barring Garden Grove from finalizing any lease agreement with a master developer before a scheduled court hearing on Dec. 17.

At that hearing, which will happen in Los Angeles County Court, a judge could decide whether or not Garden Grove can lease the site to a master developer without following the state Surplus Land Act.

Barajas-Tena said city officials at their meeting today are essentially headed toward a “show.”

If the judge rules in favor of Barajas-Tena’s team, city officials’ approval of McWhinney as a master developer becomes moot — “it doesn’t matter,” she said.

In October, state officials expanded the definition of surplus land with the passage of Assembly Bill 1486 — signed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Oct. 9 — which prompted Garden Grove to halt movement on the golf course at the time.

But the bill doesn’t take effect until next year. One month later, Garden Grove officials in legal correspondence indicated they wanted to dispose of the property prior to January, 2020 and resumed discussions on the proposals they received.

“They’re trying to fast-track it,” Barajas-Tena said.

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

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