Garden Grove can’t finalize any deal with a for-profit developer, to lease and build on 100 acres of rare green space the city owns in a working-class neighborhood, before tighter state land use laws take effect next year, a Los Angeles County Court judge ruled Tuesday morning.

The ruling, by LA Superior Court Judge Mary Strobel, issues a preliminary injunction barring Garden Grove from following through on a proposed agreement with development group McWhinney – which is proposed to lease the Willowick Golf Course over 55 years — until a final ruling is issued in a lawsuit case brought against the city by local activists and residents of the surrounding area organized under Rise Up Willowick.

The legal battle over whether the Surplus Land Act – an existing state land use law requiring cities and local agencies to fly surplus land they own past any affordable housing or public use options before handing it off for commercial purposes – applies to the golf course would at least take months, bringing court proceedings well into next year.

By then, an amendment to the state law – which goes further in restricting cities from finding exemptions to the land use law and circumventing it – would have already taken effect, possibly tying Garden Grove’s hands on the issue.

Garden Grove officials say the current iteration of the state law doesn’t apply to the Willowick Golf Course because the city hasn’t determined the site doesn’t have a local agency use, but have previously indicated that new parts of the law effective next year – which expand the requirements for cities to define and determine surplus land — could compel them to apply the Surplus Land Act to the golf course.

Rise Up Willowick activists have for a year argued any commercial developments on the golf course would drive gentrification by pricing generations of working-class families out of the area.

But the City Council, after months of secretly combing through development proposals, has been negotiating with McWhinney to lease the site despite protests by local activists who say the city has shrouded the golf course’s future in secrecy and has all but shut out the public from a seat at the negotiating table.

The ruling comes just a few hours before the Garden Grove City Council is set to vote on a development agreement with McWhinney, which has been a major donor to city council members over the last several election cycles, at their meeting scheduled for this evening.

Strobel at the Tuesday hearing clarified for the city’s attorneys that the Council can still approve the development agreement with McWhinney, as long as it’s not “consummated” or finalized before a final court ruling.

Attorneys for Garden Grove were accompanied by Santa Ana’s Assistant City Attorney, John Funk. Santa Ana doesn’t legally own the golf course and has maintained they’re not a direct party to the lawsuit despite jointly authorizing a request for developer bids for the site with Garden Grove in January.

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

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