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When the County of Orange neared a deal to sell public park land in Upper Newport Bay to a wealthy political donor for just $13,000 — unbeknownst to much of the public — a group of residents seemingly put a stop to it in May through pages of petition signatures and civic action.

Elected county Supervisor Katrina Foley, who represents a district spanning the area, also used what’s called her “district prerogative” to unilaterally pull the deal, intending to take down the private fence line that’s been raised around the public property.

Now county officials are backing away from the idea of reclaiming the park land.

This is after Newport Beach resident Buck Johns — a wealthy Republican donor to county supervisors’ bids for local and national office — warned of legal action over his canceled purchase and objected to the fence’s removal in a July 8 letter through his attorney, Patrick Munoz of the Rutan & Tucker law firm.

“We are writing to request that the County agree to cease any efforts to remove the fence in order to allow settlement discussions to occur,” wrote Munoz. “If the County does not agree to do so, our client has instructed us to move forward with litigation…”

The fence straddles the parcel, which sits on the slope right below Johns’ home overlooking the scenic bay.

To critics, the fence has come to represent the effort to close the land off from the public — even if the parcel isn’t exactly used by hikers or people enjoying the bay and its trails — and taking it down would largely be for symbolic and aesthetic reasons.

County staff in a July 14 response letter told Johns they would not take the fence down.

“The county will not be taking any action related to the Subject Property or the fence that currently encloses the property,” wrote the county’s Chief Real Estate Officer Thomas Miller.

That decision, according to Miller’s letter, came at the direction of county supervisors behind closed doors during their Tuesday meeting last week:

“County staff has had the opportunity to discuss the Subject Property with the Board of Supervisors and has received direction with regard to this matter.”

County spokesperson Molly Nichelson, asked how this closed-session discussion was noticed to the public on Tuesday, pointed to item SCS6 on Tuesday’s supervisors meeting agenda.

That item appears under the supplemental and revised version of the meeting’s agenda, and only references the discussion as a conference with legal counsel over “anticipated litigation.”

Miller’s letter to Johns asserts that the County does not respond to or agree with the points made in Munoz’s legal warning: 

“Please be aware that the Subject Property is still owned by the County and is identified as open space. As such, it should remain in that natural state and no inconsistent activities should take place thereon.”

An aerial view of the land that Buck Johns wants to buy for $13,000. Credit: County of Orange

Not Over Yet

The halted efforts come after Foley, the only one of her elected colleagues on the Board of Supervisors to publicly question the near-sale, pulled the deal off the table earlier this year.

Foley specifically raised questions about the $13,000 price that county officials prepared to sell the land for — a price vastly lower than the nearby $1-million-assessed parcels in the area — based on an appraisal Johns paid for and which county officials reviewed and approved.

It was also revealed that Johns’ deal, in 2020, was facilitated by then-supervisor and current Congresswoman Michelle Steel, Foley’s predecessor on the board.

Johns has been a donor to Steel’s supervisor elections in recent years, and also contributed at least $5,600 directly to Steel’s run for Congress in the year 2019. 

Members of the public were given little notice about the impending sale, which came up for a vote in April, beyond a paper notice slapped on the walking trail next to the parcel below Johns’ home and a discussion at an advisory County Parks Commission meeting.

That meeting, which was conducted remotely and streamed online, netted 168 views on YouTube as of July 17.

“The letter pretty much says it all … it disregards the 1,200 residents that were concerned about the private property owner having control over public open space,” Foley said when reached for comment about her board’s latest decision on July 16. 

“I really just don’t understand why we would leave the fence up,” she added.

Frustration Abounds

Susan Skinner, who led the resident petition push that prompted the county to halt the sale under state law, said she’s “furious” over the county’s letter and that she’ll be filing a complaint to the Orange County Grand Jury. 

“There is no way someone who is not politically-connected could get this result,” Skinner said. “Every step of the way, all these pieces of the sale are so inappropriate — every single one of them sequentially makes me more mad and determined to make sure the fence comes down.”

Munoz — Johns’ attorney — in his letter wrote: “A fence has existed near the Southern border of the Johns’ property since before they purchased it in 1977. The fence line is partially on the Subject Property.”

Until recently, Munoz said, “both the Johns [sic] and the County believed the Subject Property belonged to the Johns.” 

The letter also takes issue with Foley’s use of her district prerogative.

If the Johns “are forced to litigate,” Munoz wrote, the circumstances and title history of the property would entitle them, “at minimum,” to an equitable easement over the parcel.

“The Johns held the good faith and objectively reasonable belief that they owned the Subject Property,” Munoz wrote, describing how the family paid $25,000 toward the construction of a nearby sediment catch basin and that the county can’t really use the parcel for anything else.

Officials who have publicly defended the deal have argued that the parcel runs on a slope and doesn’t hold much value to hikers on the adjacent — but highly popular — trail.

“If you recall at first, the argument was it’s just not valuable,” Foley said on July 16 “Well, somebody working so hard, paying high-priced lawyers over this” makes it “seem valuable to me.”

Munoz, in the letter, wrote “it is our sincere desire to avoid litigation over the above issues and ask that the Board agree to cease any efforts to remove the fence while we complete our investigation into the facts, and engage in settlement discussions with you.”

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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