A fight to open more of Orange County’s landscape to the public is gaining regional momentum, which — if successful — could mean residents over the next set of years will have more open space to stretch their legs, run around in and explore. 

Since the start of this year, different public land movements across the county have either sprung into action or made unprecedented progress, seeking to preserve and expand Orange County’s stretches of park land.

Two of these fights are taking place in some of the most scenic, and wealthy, areas of Orange County’s central coast — Banning Ranch and Upper Newport Bay. 

Meanwhile, if the effort succeeds, one of the region’s largest urban area state parks near north Orange County, located in Chino Hills, could become even larger.

Much of the recent activity comes largely due to an unprecedented amount of philanthropic efforts and never-before-seen state grants, says Paolo Perrone, a project manager for The Trust for Public Land, an open space nonprofit. 

“I’ve been doing this work for 15 years and I’ve never felt as much momentum as now,” Perrone said, taking in the commanding vistas of bluffs and wetlands in Banning Ranch — a piece of Newport Beach long targeted for development — during a tour of the area.

Studies have found that areas with more open space supply can have positive effects on a community’s mental health and public safety settings. 

Meanwhile, less affluent areas of North and Central Orange County still face steep disadvantages through park shortages and green space deficits.

[Read: OC Park History Is a Tale of Two Counties]

In those areas, there’s an existing and ongoing fight by groups like Rise Up Willowick, which has for two years led the charge to conserve open space at the Willowick Golf Course between Santa Ana and Garden Grove for its surrounding, less affluent neighborhoods. 

[Read: Willowick: One Neighborhood At Center of Reshaping Battle for Area’s Last Open Space]

Santa Anita handball courts on Feb. 2, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Most recently, Rise Up Willowick organizers and other residents surrounding Willowick turned out to the Garden Grove City Council’s most recent, July 27 meeting to restate their demands that the golf course first be prioritized for open space and affordable housing.

“After a year of having been away from in-person meetings due to Covid-19, we decided to show up in person and reiterate the same things we’ve been saying, calling for open space for the community’s benefit,” said Rise Up Willowick organizer Karen Rodriguez on Friday.

She points out that while open space movements in other areas of the county are gaining funding milestones and philanthropic support, “talking about open space, and increasing open space, in historically disadvantaged communities is a challenge..”

She said it goes back to inequities between wealthy areas and disadvantaged ones: “Everything changes when it comes down to who lives where.”

Click play to hear what Rise Up Willowick organizers had to say (The video will automatically start at their comments) about the fight for the Willowick Golf Course in their neighborhood .

Conservation used to be a small slice of environmental activism, Perrone told Voice of OC on July 27.

 But now, in the face of a climate crisis, Perrone said his niche of advocacy has taken on a much larger role. 

“Unfortunately a lot of really scary climate events, you know, between fires, heat, floods, and then the pandemic has also really made people think about open space and being outside,” he said.

Last year, the State of California issued the 30 by 30 executive order last year to conserve 30% of its land and coastal waters by 2030. 

The Fight for Banning Ranch

The last and largest swath of privately-owned coastal open space between Ventura County and Mexico is taking steps to become a 384-acre public park thanks to increased funding and recognition. 

It began with a game-changing $50 million donation from Newport Beach philanthropists Frank and Joann Randall in 2019. 

State and federal grants, some of which are pending, then began trickling in. 

[Read: Banning Ranch One Step Closer to Becoming Coastal Public Park with $8 million State Grant]

Funding is still needed to reach the $97 million price tag on the land, which once was a working oil field, by April 2022.

But conservationists are hopeful for the project’s momentum.

Banning Ranch is the last and largest swath of privately-owned coastal open space between Ventura County and Mexico. Credit: LUPITA HERRERA, Voice of OC

The proposed park would provide 8.4 million people that live within an hour’s drive access to nature. 

The project helps bridge the region’s park-equity gap where about half are considered low income and a third are residents of a park-deficient community, according to a statement by The Trust for Public Land. 

Restoring the land through extending its wetlands would also protect the neighboring communities from rising sea levels and flooding, which has been an issue in the past, said Perrone. 

These wetlands, coastal uplands and vernal pools near the mouth of the Santa Ana River are home to at least six threatened or endangered species, according to the Banning Ranch Conservancy.

Open space and nature activists have tried to shield this area from home builders for years, which has stormed up a dramatic battle amongst the surrounding community.

Namely, the saga centered around a controversial bid by a developer — under an LLC known as Newport Banning Ranch — to build 895 homes, a 75-room hotel, a 20-bed hostel and 45,100 square feet of retail space on 62 acres.

It was a development effort which the California Coastal Commission rejected in 2016, and later cemented by a 2017 state Supreme Court ruling that found the project lacked real environmental impact considerations and that any future project would require another study.

“I’ve been doing this work for 15 years and I’ve never felt as much momentum as now,” says Paolo Perrone, a project manager for The Trust for Public Land. Credit: LUPITA HERRERA, Voice of OC

Region’s Largest Urban State Park Could Get Bigger

Funding for open space has also accelerated in the hills of Orange County. 

This summer, California’s Wildlife Conservation Board granted $3 million to purchase two key pieces of land adjacent to Chino Hills State Park. The goal is to add this 400 acres to the more than 14,000-acre state park, further expanding habitat along an important wildlife area.

The money came from a fund to protect deer and mountain lions. The additions help connect habitats along the Puente-Chino Hills Wildlife Corridor, which allows animals to mate, forage, migrate, nest and escape catastrophes more easily.

If this land were developed, it would affect key views of the hills from inside and outside the park as well as potentially increase human-started fire risk in an area that was devastated by the Blue Ridge Fire last October, according to Melanie Schlotterbeck, consultant for nonprofit Hills for Everyone.

In the middle of a heavily populated and increasingly urbanized area, Chino Hills State Park gives nearby residents an escape from concrete and a place for recreation.

Hills for Everyone, which helped create Chino Hills State Park, has tried to purchase these properties for decades. 

Now it finally can due to government grants and willing sellers that long used the land for oil drilling.

The 80-acre property closed escrow last month, with the 320-acre piece still in progress. The nonprofit ultimately wants to expand this area by another 1500 acres, Schlotterbeck said.

[Read: An Effort to Expand Chino Hills State Park Moves Forward]

The Chino Hills State Park burned in the Blue Ridge Fire that started in late October. Credit: JOSE HERNANDEZ, Voice of OC

Residents Fight Political Donor Over Newport Park Land

This year, a small, slopeside piece of Upper Newport Bay came close to being sold by County of Orange officials to a wealthy political donor — Buck Johns of Newport Beach — for just $13,000, the price of which was determined by an appraisal Johns paid for and the county approved. 

[Read: Newport Political Donor’s $13K Bid for Back Bay Park Land Stokes Opposition, Debate Over Who Gets Priority for Public Land in OC]

Johns and county officials facilitating the sale argued the property once belonged to Johns prior to the area’s history of acquisitioning between various entities like the county and the Irvine Company. 

Members of the public objecting to the sale were in uproar over the prospect of the county selling what is now the public’s land to any private entity, and called for the removal of a private fence line raised around the property. 

They also raised questions over the price and the nature of the appraisal Johns commissioned, pointing to other, nearby land parcels in the area valued well at $1 million by county assessors. 

What followed was a civic action campaign — led by objecting local residents, like Newport Beach watchdog Susan Skinner — which yielded more than 1,000 petition signatures to stop the sale. 

[Read: Newport Beach Residents Stop $13K County Sale of Back Bay Park Land to Wealthy GOP Donor]

Ride your bike, walk with your dog, or run along the 10.5 mile loop of Back Bay with views of the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve throughout it all. Credit: CRYSTAL HENRIQUEZ, Voice of OC
A paper notice in front of the piece of Upper Newport Bay park land that was set to be sold to Buck Johns, a wealthy GOP donor, until residents petitioned to stop the sale. Credit: BRANDON PHO, Voice of OC

Supervisor Katrina Foley, who represents the district spanning that area, later pulled the sale off the table with what’s called her “district prerogative,” intending to remove the private fence line.

The near-deal, it was revealed, was facilitated by then-supervisor Michelle Steel, who received thousands of dollars in donations from Johns for her ultimately successful Congressional campaign. 

Steel is now a U.S. Representative, and Costa Mesa’s Foley was elected to fill her vacant seat. 

While residents celebrated their initial victory, it became clear Johns’ fight for the property wasn’t over, warning of legal action over his canceled purchase earlier this month. 

Residents like Skinner, in turn, signaled publicly this month that their fight isn’t over either. 

Perrone says there’s a marked increase of interest by the general public around what happens to their public lands:

“To do this for 15 years, and have a lot of people not care and then all of a sudden people are calling us and wanting to be a part of it, it feels pretty cool.”

Jillie Herrold is a reporting intern at Voice of OC and can be reached at jherrold@voiceofoc.org.

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

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