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Getting access to public lands in Orange County can be a complicated and long-drawn process for residents and community leaders trying to build, say, a public park or a community garden.

But for one Newport Beach political donor, the process seems to have moved much smoother and quicker.

So much so, it’s casting attention on how the County of Orange handles surplus land, or why it would sell off county park land at all.

It centers on a request by Newport Beach resident Buck Johns to buy less than an acre of county-owned park land for $13,000 — the price of which was determined by an appraisal he paid for — to possibly lump in with his nearby property.

The parcel is a piece of Upper Newport Bay that county officials once declared for “public use and enjoyment … with its unique natural resources and commanding vistas” in 1990, after it was donated to the county in an “irrevocable offer of dedication” by the Irvine Co.

Yet Orange County’s elected Board of Supervisors seemed poised this month to sell the land to Johns after he approached the county for it last year. 

Campaign finance data shows Johns has been a donor to elected officials like former supervisor and current Republican Congresswoman Michelle Steel, who helped move forward with the process after Johns contacted her last year, according to county staff and Supervisor Katrina Foley, who got elected to the seat when Steel won a seat in Congress.

Michelle Steel at the Orange County and state Republican Party event in Newport on March 3, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

A request for comment to Johns went unreturned as of Tuesday.

The deal had raised red flags for Foley, who pulled the purchase proposal from the board’s last April 13 meeting and continued it to a later date.

Now, in the meantime, some residents have organized to fight the possible land acquisition, circulating a petition to get 200 signatures to stop the county from declaring this property ‘abandoned’ — a designation which would allow the purchase.

“Nobody knows about this. It’s flown under radar and is spectacularly stinky,” said Susan Skinner, one resident and critic of the proposed purchase who’s helping circulate the petition. 

Skinner added: 

“I see no reason why the county should even entertain the idea of selling park land to a private homeowner.”

It was Foley’s first meeting on legislative issues as a supervisor when she pulled the proposal on April 13. Foley told Voice of OC in a later interview she wanted more facts “to understand how it came to be that we were giving away such valuable property for $13,000.” 

“I’ve since learned that then-Supervisor Michelle Steel initiated the process at Mr. John’s request and staff went about processing the request,” Foley said. 

One document, attached to the item that Foley pulled, argued the parcel once belonged to Johns and that he’s trying to “regain” ownership of it. Indeed, that surrounding area has a history of acquisitioning and being sliced up between the county, the Irvine Co., and other entities. 

The Johns family’s ownership of this particular parcel dates back to before its days with the Irvine Co., said OC Parks Director Stacy Blackwood at a county Parks Commission meeting on Jan. 7.

Voice of OC asked county officials to provide a copy of the appraisal, which, when officials sent it over, indeed showed the land being valued at $13,000. 

Yet it was Johns who paid for that study, OC Parks staff said in January. The county later reviewed and approved its findings.

“The County is comfortable with the appraisal and the valuation therein.  While the appraisal was completed at Mr. John’s cost, the County did approve the identity of the appraiser and reviewed the scope of work for the appraisal,” said county spokesperson Molly Nichelson in an email.

“Additionally, the County had the appraisal substantiated both by a third party appraiser … and by the County’s own internal valuation team,” Nichelson said.

Blackwood at the January parks meeting said the land was noticed to public agencies in accordance with the Surplus Land Act — which at its spirit is meant to prioritize an agency’s public land for things like park space or housing — but that staff got no interested responses.

The land, previously owned by the Irvine Co. until it was handed over to the county, was once declared by supervisors as belonging to the public, in a dedication document from 1990.

“I’m not into giving public land originally designated as park land to the homeowner who has come to us … I really feel uncomfortable supporting this,” said one Parks Commissioner, Stanton’s Republican Mayor Dave Shawver, at the Jan. 7 meeting.

Other commissioners defending the proposal said the area is a slope and not really used by the public. Though the adjacent hiking trail is very popular and active, staff said.

“I have to say it seems odd to be selling such valuable property at such a low price,” Foley said. “I think anywhere we do that in the county, we should do some evaluating.” 

To that point, this land sale comes as activists across the county have for years sought to win pieces of land back for the community’s benefit — lands that cities like Buena Park, Santa Ana and Garden Grove, for example, are holding onto.

In those cities and others, government discussions about what to do with these lands are often marred by non-transparency complaints or an unwillingness by those cities’ elected leaders to consider the land as belonging to the “public” in the first place or beholden to community-centered state land use laws.

[Read: Critics Decry Secrecy Around Future of Willowick Golf Course]

Namely, the controversy has focused around large and valuable pieces of open space surrounded by low-income areas like the Willowick Golf Course between Santa Ana and Garden Grove — spaces identified by officials as having much economic potential but feared by community advocates as potential engines of gentrification. 

Instead, activists there have said, the land would better serve as a park, recreational areas, or affordable housing — or a mish-mash of all those things.

The debate in recent years has also focused around the vacant land parcels left over from the Orange County Transportation Authority’s widening of Bristol St. in Santa Ana — parcels that city officials greenlit for development in 2019. 

[Read: Santa Ana Prepares to Sell Off Dozens of Public Land Parcels for Development]

And in Buena Park, the City Council’s defaulting of a property once planned for a hotel by the developers who bought it is now sparking word of public land potential — though not all council members are on board with that possibility.

[Read: Buena Park Officials Lose Faith in Long-Stagnant Stanford Hotel Project, Sparking Public Land Potential]

It remains unclear what Johns has planned for the Upper Newport Bay parcel if he gets it.

Blackwood at the January parks meeting said Johns’ ownership of the land “would improve the overall appraised value of his (Johns’) property for his trustees or whomever he might sell it to in the future.”

“Interesting little sale,” remarked Bert Ashland, one Parks Commissioner, at the meeting, which was simulcast on Zoom and YouTube.

“Yeah,” said another.

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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