After years of paying some of the highest property taxes in Orange County, homeowners in Irvine’s Great Park are asking for an explanation on where all their money is going.
A Voice of OC investigation last year alerted residents that they will be paying over $1 billion in coming decades to finance the park’s infrastructure through special taxes that make them some of the most heavily taxed homes in Orange County.
And with little to no say on where that money goes.
Instead, Irvine city council members and developer FivePoint Holdings control the cost and selection of projects in the park, with a small portion of the tax dollars going to the immediate neighborhoods surrounding the home to finance utility and road construction.
Those taxes also never expire, a significant change from similar taxes on different neighborhoods that only finance development for the first few decades after a new neighborhood is built out.
More and more, it’s a fact not lost on area homeowners, who along with current city council members, are now starting to ask questions almost a decade after the original arrangement was set up and approved by both Democrat and Republican city council majorities.
The financing is something that no city council members discussed in public ever again.
Until after Voice of OC published its investigation last year, which was met by irate public protests from city council members from the dais.
Yet now, armed with that same information, homeowners are asking tough questions about where their taxes go.
“When we bought a house, nobody told me my taxes were actually paying for Great Park facilities. I thought all we were paying was for the schools, for the best amenities exclusively used by residents,” said Great Park resident Eugenio Zheng at a council meeting in March 2020. “We’re just like a cow being milked.”
Even some council members are now starting to ask their own questions.
“It appears that our residents in Great Park Neighborhoods were not aware of what they signed up for,” said Irvine City Councilman Mike Carroll. “I’ve got a four-year term, and we’re going to be looking at this. There are definitely big issues out there at the Great Park and the way in which these improvements are financed that need to be looked at.”
After over a decade and an investment of more than $400 million in taxes and bonds on the project, Great Park homeowners don’t see that kind of money invested in their neighborhood.
Nearly the entire park is made up of baseball and soccer fields according to the city’s website, with one art complex and the park’s hot air balloon. Great Park Ice also sits on the edge of the park, but requires an entry fee according to their website.
Some residents have decided they’ve had enough of the council unilaterally deciding what should be built with their tax dollars in the park.
At the council’s March 23 meeting, homeowners from around the park flooded the discussion on a proposed veterans cemetery that would go up near an elementary school and homes, asking why so many people from outside their neighborhood had so much say in the process.
“When I found out it was going to be next to an elementary school…I thought who made this decision?” said commenter Diana Tran-Kim. “You have to hear from all residents of Irvine and I am one of them. I know there are other parents and residents that feel the same. As a democracy, we are all allowed to have a voice.
Some residents have broached the idea of Great Park homeowners getting an official say in that process.
Currently, city council members have complete control over what projects are approved at the Park.
The issue of homeowner oversight could be coming to a vote soon, after Councilman Larry Agran announced last month he spoke with members of the Great Park Resident Association.
Agran has publicly announced he will ask his council colleagues for a discussion on making an advisory committee for homeowners.
Mayor Farrah Khan said she’d need more info on the idea for an advisory committee, but that she’d spoken with residents near the park over the past year and done her best to connect them with city resources, encouraging them to comment at the council’s meetings.
“For me, I think that has been a pretty good model. You don’t have to be at the meeting, you can email in discussions,” Khan said in a phone call with Voice of OC.
Councilwoman Tammy Kim said she fully supported a body of residents advising on the park, but pointed out they would only have control over the property owned by the city.
“Having a Great Park community commission or committee, in whatever form or fashion it might be, I’d always encourage that,” Kim said. “Great Park residents want a say on how the future of the Great Park goes but then a lot of the land is not owned by the city. That’s been kind of a dilemma.”
Carroll said he was completely open to a discussion on the issue, and the residents deserved a transparent explanation of how the taxes work and why they were put in place.
Councilman Anthony Kuo did not return requests for comment.
The Great Park Resident Association declined to comment for this story, saying they were still in the process of getting their organization up and running.
While some residents have questioned why homeowners don’t hold a seat on the Great Park Board, that currently isn’t allowed after voters approved the Great Park Fiscal Transparency and Reform Act in 2014, before most of the current residents moved to the area.
The city council at the time put the measure on the ballot, advertising how it would ensure public oversight of millions of tax dollars, but it also codified that city council members were the only people with a vote on where that money would go.
That could be changed, but it’s unclear whether it would take another ballot initiative or a city ordinance.
Despite the yearslong promises of transparency, updates on the park’s development have largely stalled over the past year.
In October 2019, FivePoint and the city announced they would be constructing a $250 million aquatics center that would include a new parking structure and public amenities that would be the home of Team USA Water Polo.
But a year and a half later, the city hasn’t seen any proposed designs or even an update on the project. In May, FivePoint announced they would be putting all their projects in the park on hold, and they refused to come speak about the issue with the city council when asked.
At the time, Khan said she discussed the issue with the company after the meeting, but there hasn’t been any public update on FivePoint’s projects at the site in over a year.
The council still hosts a monthly meeting discussing the Park, but none have run over 45 minutes in the last six months. The largest expense discussed at the last meeting was announcing a $1 million upgrade to four concession stands to serve hot, unpackaged food.
Khan said to expect “a little more,” at the council’s April 27 meeting, and that going forward the council would be discussing new development plans for the park.
“A lot of the building has been going on behind the scenes,” Khan said. “Things will start to come into place.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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