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Earlier this year, County of Orange officials came close to selling a piece of Upper Newport Bay Park land to a wealthy political donor for just $13,000 — unbeknownst to many members of the public.

Some local watch dogs caught wind of the deal, elected county Supervisor Katrina Foley halted it before it got to a vote, and Voice of OC later reported that the deal to sell park land to Newport Beach resident Buck Johns was facilitated by a then-supervisor Johns has been a donor to: 

Michelle Steel, who has since been elected to Congress. 

Now, a petition to stop the county’s “abandonment” process of the land, which would allow the sale, has crossed the needed 200 signature mark, according to petition organizer Susan Skinner. 

By hundreds of signatures. 

“I decided to remove this item from the agenda instead of moving forward with a vote,” wrote Foley in a newsletter to her coastal constituents on Friday, adding that OC Parks “will work to revoke the fence” surrounding the parcel.

Foley initially pulled the item off the supervisors’ agenda when it last came up, saying the deal raised red flags.

Marisa O’Neil, a spokesperson for OC Parks, confirmed in a Friday email that, indeed, the deal won’t go before the board.

Because residents got enough signatures, the county either had to pull the deal or put the question of whether to sell the land before voters in an election, according to state law.

“It just went viral. It’s remarkable,” Skinner said last Tuesday. More than 700 signatures had been received as of that day. By Friday, she said, the petition was close to reaching 1,000.

The deal has raised questions over who elected officials across Orange County prioritize public lands for: The community, or the wealthy and politically connected? 

Skinner said community members’ postings about the proposed land sale and the petition to stop it caught traction among local community discussion groups on social media, like Facebook and NextDoor. 

“People are very upset by the inequity they’re seeing. At this point, we win,” Skinner said. 

Supervisors came close to selling the land to Johns for $13,000, based on an appraisal of the land that Johns paid for and the county approved. 

County spokesperson Molly Nichelson has said in a previous story that the county stands by the integrity of the appraisal. 

Yet a parcel of land adjacent to the parcel that Johns wants was valued by county assessors at more than $1 million, according to the county’s Treasurer-Tax Collector website.

Nichelson didn’t respond when asked about the discrepancy between this piece of land’s value and the value of the land Johns wants, but again pointed a reporter to the appraisal that the county approved.

“Here the county is, saying ‘Yes we looked at this appraisal,’ and literally the next little parcel — same size, location, undeveloped … I think people are smart enough to look and recognize it’s a sweetheart deal,” Skinner said.

Johns and some county officials have argued the parcel once belonged to the Johns family, and that he’s trying to “regain” ownership of it. That surrounding area indeed has a history of acquisitioning 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.

The Upper Newport Bay parcel previously belonged to the Irvine Co. until it handed the land over to the county, which declared the land as park land in 1990. 

The land is for “public use and enjoyment,” according to the county’s declaration from that year, “with its unique natural resources and commanding vistas.”

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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