Garden Grove City Council members last month ended all negotiations with three groups competing to develop one of central Orange County’s last open green spaces between two built-out cities: The 104-acre Willowick Golf Course.

City officials abruptly pulled the plug in a March 23 letter that cited an apparent neighborly dispute.

The move comes after Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento sent Garden Grove Mayor Steve Jones a letter on March 7 asking Jones and his colleagues to ensure most of Willowick remains an open space.

“As you know, Santa Ana has a deficit of park space which is critical to the health of our community, something that was abundantly clear as we battled the pandemic,” said Sarmiento’s March 7 letter to Jones. 

Garden Grove owns the land and controls its sale or lease yet Willowick sits in west Santa Ana, so officials there have ultimate zoning rights. It would be hard for Garden Grove City Hall to push past such a request in finalizing any land deal.

Santa Ana’s letter laid out officials’ vision for open space. 

Garden Grove officials pulled the plug on the process altogether after reading it.

“Based on the letter that the City of Garden Grove received from the City of Santa Ana […] it is evident that an agreement for the disposition of the property acceptable to the City of Garden Grove will not be possible,” wrote assistant city manager Lisa Kim to the three groups.

Now it’s unclear what will ultimately happen to what some called 104 acres of “possibility” by the Santa Ana River.

“We’re disappointed that there wasn’t willingness to at least enter into conversations about the property being used for open space … This was one of the few times I think both interests could have aligned,” Sarmiento said in a Friday phone interview reacting to the news.

Sarmiento said the intent of his city’s March 7 letter was to do “two things.”

One was to “advise” Garden Grove that Santa Ana has a different interest in Willowick now than it did under a prior Santa Ana city council, which jointly sought bids for Willowick with Garden Grove in 2019 before the Surplus Land Act came down on the property.

“In 2019 we didn’t have any funds for the acquisition so we simply had land use control which we continue to have,” Sarmiento said. “But we now have land use control in addition to funding available for the acquisition of all 102 acres.”

Sarmiento cites federal pandemic aid dollars under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2020 as well as a $42 million in City of Santa Ana budget reserves. 

“It was important for us to advise garden grove that they were no longer dealing with us a s a partner with responses too land use but as a partner that would look to acquiring some agreed-upon value,” Sarmiento said.

Two of the private groups which negotiated with Garden Grove to develop the land expressed mixed reactions to the abrupt news.

“It’s definitely disappointing. And mostly just because it means we’re not going to get housing built there for a long time,” said Kelsey Brewer of the affordable housing nonprofit called Jamboree Housing Corporation. 

Brewer’s group banded with several others under a bidding entity called Willowick Community Partners.

“I think the easiest way to summarize our reactions is that we were disappointed. We were surprised, quite frankly,” said Ryan Aeh of eco-friendly home builder CityVentures. “We felt like we were making progress towards a negotiation.”

The Trust for Public Lands was another interested party. The group has the support of community activists who organized around the land under a coalition named Rise Up Willowick.

Organizers there said the city pulling the plug means they aren’t any closer to their vision of a large park between two park-poor areas. 

But there was also optimism and even a small sense of victory that the city’s pause in negotiations with the other groups means that vision remains a possibility for now.

“Initially our reaction was that what we were advocating for wouldn’t materialize at this stage and after four years, that as really difficult to hear,” said Rise Up Willowick Lead Researcher Karen Romero Estrada. “Another reaction was that we succeeded in our goals to stop disposition of Willowick in a free market process and cause harm to the surrounding area.”

Different interests eyed the property for developments that neither the Trust for Public Lands nor Rise Up Willowick activists supported. They wanted the site to remain mostly open space.

Trust for Public Lands’ Program Director Robin Mark said other groups proposed large developments that incorporate smaller open space components. 

“The idea that this land is not going to be developed in any of those ways was a win for the community and a testament to those in the community who came out and organized,” Mark said in a Friday phone interview.

Hotel developer McWhinney also made a bid for the land. The developer declined to speak to Voice of OC in detail beyond a small written statement: 

“While we still look forward to the prospect of working on the Willowick redevelopment project, we also look forward to finding new opportunities to work with the Cities of Garden Grove and Santa Ana.”

Open space activists had the sneaking suspicion for years that some at City Hall never wanted to prioritize much of the city-owned property for parkland and affordable housing. The city’s required to do so under a public land use law called the Surplus Land Act.

The grassy expanse sitting by the Santa Ana River has been dubbed 104 acres of “possibility.” Residents of the site’s nearby working-class neighborhoods wondered for years how that “possibility” might alter their lives. For so long the impacts were largely golf balls landing in yards.

Some stakeholders voiced concern that Garden Grove officials’ letter may have triggered a key provision under the Surplus Land Act. 

It might give officials more leeway to require less affordable housing on-site.

The text of the Surplus Land Act obligates a public agency to negotiate in good faith with any development proposal that includes at least 25% affordable housing in its project. 

But the agency could sell or lease the land to a developer that commits to only 15% affordable housing if the agency cannot first come to a mutually satisfactory price or terms with any group under the Surplus Land Act’s 25% threshold. 

Garden Grove City Attorney Omar Sandoval said, “the answer to your question is yes” when asked whether that provision had been triggered with the city pulling the plug. 

“We don’t know what the intent is of the city. And I never like to speak to things that I don’t know. But what I do know is, if this process ends and they’ve satisfied their Surplus Land Act  requirements, then all of a sudden, 102 acres goes from having a 25% affordability requirement to a 15% affordability requirement,” said Brewer of Jamboree Housing Corporation.

The state Dept. of Housing and Community Development oversees local jurisdictions’ compliance with the Surplus Land Act. David Zisser is the department’s enforcement arm and Alicia Murillo is the spokesperson. 

They both declined to say whether Garden Grove’s case triggers that provision without enough information from the ground but said anyone who believes the law wasn’t followed can file a complaint with Housing and Community Development.

The city tried to lease the property to McWhinney in 2019 while saying little publicly. 

But a community activist movement called the Rise Up Willowick coalition filed a lawsuit that same year. It effectively prevented the city from selecting McWhinney at the 11th hour and forced officials to restart the land deal under the Surplus Land Act. 

Any proposals for Willowick after the legal reset were compelled to include open space and affordable housing ideas. Rise Up Willowick had largely pushed everyone to their side on a public lands issue playing out up and down California.

“We believe the City of Garden Grove has always looked toward Willowick as a way to make money,” said a Rise Up Willowick organizer named Flor Barajas-Tena. Her group threw its support behind the Trust for Public Lands’ proposal for Willowick. 

Rise Up Willowick has long advocated for most if not all of the golf course to remain open space. Its members forced City Hall into the Surplus Land Act process yet Barajas-Tena said City Hall was never there in spirit.

“Now they’re hiding their ball and taking it home,” said Barajas-Tena.

City Attorney Omar Sandoval said in his email that City Hall “tried to be as open as possible by keeping all the information regarding the process” and the city’s correspondence with various groups on the city’s public website.

McWhinney again threw its hat into the ring in 2020 after the legal reset. But so did the two other current groups. 

And a lot has changed since the Garden Grove and Santa Ana city councils jointly greenlit the place for some type of buildout in January 2019. 

The same Garden Grove City Council members in office now were all in office back then.

But Santa Ana’s elected body was almost entirely different and older. Open space didn’t come up much on their end at the 2019 hearing. Yet the following 2020 election changed the council’s balance of power and its priorities. Now the council’s mostly younger and more progressive. 

Many of the current Santa Ana council members have also made clear their priority for open space at Willowick.

But that alone wouldn’t make Willowick a community resource or engine of transformation. 

“I’m not necessarily sold that we need to sell the land to be honest anymore,” said Garden Grove Councilmember George Breitigam when the issue came up at a late 2020 council meeting after the trajectory shift.

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