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Garden Grove officials this week moved closer to identifying who will develop one of the last remaining open green spaces in a nearby park-poor, working-class Latino neighborhood.

The City Council voted 5-2 on Tuesday to start the negotiations with three main groups proposing to build on the 100-acre Willowick Golf Course, which the city legally owns but sits in west end Santa Ana.

Council discussions on the property have largely happened behind closed doors. But those in the council minority Tuesday publicly voiced worry about selling the land, cautioning that the sale could run afoul of state land use laws and invite unnecessary litigation.

Meanwhile others on the City Council urged their colleagues to move forward and steer outstanding concerns over the sale of the site, which is coveted among developers, out of the public eye.

City staff contends that Garden Grove is meeting the spirit of the state Surplus Land Act, which prioritizes the land for open space and affordable housing.

Who Are the Groups Vying for Willowick?

The following groups have submitted proposals outlining their visions for what the golf course should turn into. Click here to access their plans for business, affordable housing and open space at the site, which Garden Grove staff are still reviewing.

  • The Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving park space in local communities that’s supported by Rise Up Willowick.
  • Willowick Community Partners, an LLC formed and managed by three groups: City Ventures, an eco-friendly home builder company; Primestor, a business and property development company focused on marginalized communities; and affordable housing nonprofit Jamboree Housing.
  • McWhinney, a hotel resort developer that’s taking another crack at the property after its near-deal with Garden Grove fell through last year in the face of Rise Up Willowick’s lawsuit.
  • The County of Orange is a fourth, supplemental proposer seeking to work with whichever entity is selected as the main authority over the site so the county could maintain its own regional park there.

And community activists — opposed to any for-profit development that could price out the area’s low-income residents — remain concerned that their vision of mostly open space will get short-changed.     

For an in-depth look at the debate over Willowick’s future, click here.

Council members Phat Bui and George Breitigam opposed beginning the talks with three developers proposing to build on the golf course.

Bui warned the city could be exposing itself to another potential lawsuit, if staff weren’t careful with the land sale process. 

In 2019, the city initially argued the golf course wasn’t subject to the Surplus Land Act, prompting a legal challenge from open space activists who coalesced into a group called Rise Up Willowick.

A judge preliminarily ruled against Garden Grove later that year. By that time, stronger provisions of the Surplus Land Act were about to take effect, making it harder for the city to continue its legal battle. 

“It just concerns me that if we are not careful and thinking this through and rush through it … I don’t want to run into any other lawsuits,” Bui said, even as city staff contend they’re complying with state law. 

Bui said he recalled various closed session meetings during which staff had assured him they would prevail in the face of any legal challenges. 

City Attorney Omar Sandoval warned Bui he was prohibited from disclosing the content of closed session government meetings, and argued that because the city was now following state law, it was unclear what type of litigation threat — if any — could arise.

Councilman  Breitigam agreed with Bui, saying that the city needs to slow down. 

“There is just so much potential for a mistake or something to happen, I don’t necessarily think we need to rush into this right now,” he said. “Maybe wait until next year. I’m not necessarily sold that we need to sell the land to be honest anymore.” 

Mayor Steve Jones urged the council members against expressing these concerns about the potential sale publicly.

“The comments being made are what could expose us to potential litigation … so I would suggest everyone kind of cool their jets and get in line with” staff’s Tuesday recommended action to begin negotiations, Jones said.

Councilman John O’Neill agreed, saying “I’m a little skeptical to keep talking about this issue.”

Meanwhile, activists with Rise Up Willowick are concerned over a city memo attached to Tuesday night’s staff report, which — in authorizing negotiations with developers — makes little mention of what they argue should be prioritized for the land under the state law: open space. 

There’s not a lot of it between the two cities. And activists’ wish to keep the golf course as mostly green land could run counter to officials’ ambitions to see more housing and commercial development on the property.

Rise Up Willowick organizer Flor Barajas-Tena took issue with the city memo, which she believes could set the stage for development being prioritized over open space, because the staff report indicates that affordable housing will take precedence in negotiations. 

Sandoval, in turn, argued Tuesday that had any of the proposals been solely for open space, then open space would take priority in discussions with developers. 

Staff now have 90 days, with possible extensions, to negotiate with the developers. 

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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