More than a year after backing down, County of Orange officials still find themselves fending off heat over nearly selling protected public parkland to a wealthy Newport Beach political donor.
And the questions keep coming from various directions.
First, it was from Newport Beach residents who deemed the sale an aesthetic affront to the public-access Upper Newport Bay – and stopped it through a civic petition. County Supervisor Katrina Foley single-handedly shelved the sale at the county government level.
Then there was an OC Grand Jury report in June, putting a 20-page microscope on the extent to which the deal was helped along by top county real estate and parks staff.
Now the state Coastal Commission has stepped in, calling for the county to reclaim the land from a chain-link fence that raised around it.
The fence marks what came close to being sold to a well-known GOP influencer named Buck Johns, who planned to lump it in with his adjacent property.
The county backed off on removing the fence after a warning letter by Johns’ attorneys.
Grand Jurors say the county “ceded” the public land to private use in leaving the fence up.
Now a state enforcement officer wants it down.
“The property is held in the public trust for perpetuity, and therefore must be available to the public for use and as open space,” reads an Aug. 17 letter from District Enforcement Officer Nicholas Tealer to OC Parks Director Tom Starnes.
Neither Johns nor his attorney, Patrick Munoz, responded to requests for comment about the fence. A secretary for Munoz said he was out of town and unreachable.
Johns, through his attorneys, argued that for a long time he “believed” he used to own the land parcel, which was subject to ownership changes over the years, between the Irvine Co. and the County of Orange.
Then Johns argued the land’s ownership history at the very least entitled him to an equitable easement over the property, which is the nonpossessory right to use property without possessing it.
The state’s letter made Foley pause at the Board of Supervisors’ regular meeting on Tuesday. Supervisors were about to finalize the county’s official response to the Grand Jury report, denying most of its findings. Newport Beach resident Jim Mosher called the county’s response an “embarrassment” from the public speaker podium.
So did others.
A slew of scathing written comments submitted to the board online called the county’s denials “ludicrous” or “disappointing.”
Grand jurors wrote county staff pushed the sale at the behest of the office of Foley’s predecessor, now Congresswoman, Michelle Steel.
The citizen watchdog panel also said county staff reports on the sale were “conclusory, incomplete, and contained inaccurate statements.”
The county’s official response to these findings reads, “The staff reports submitted to the Commission and the Board regarding this potential sale are not conclusionary, incomplete or contain inaccurate statements. Neither the Second District Supervisor nor their office exercised any improper influence.”
Steel also denied being partial to Johns, the donor who gave directly to her 2020 congressional campaign.
Yet a previous Voice of OC story about frequent email communications between Johns and her office’s staff, correspondence indicated Johns would also frequently ask county staff for updates on the sale process.
Grand Jurors also found that the county failed to properly notify the public, beyond a paper notice slapped on a pole near the land parcel at the trails.
The county’s response: “The County complied with all legal requirements for posting and noticing.”
“Instead of taking to heart the recommendations […] the County is disregarding many of the findings and pointing blame elsewhere,” wrote Melanie Schlotterbeck in a letter on behalf of Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks (FHBP). The group began watchdogging county parks policy after the county bankruptcy of the 1990s.
Schlotterbeck added, “Instead of advancing a transparent outcome, the County is attempting to keep public park sales quiet.”
“Take the darn fence down. No more excuses,” wrote one commenter named Marcus Harris.
Foley asked the board to hold off on formalizing the county’s denial of Grand Jurors’ findings.
“Last night we received a letter from the Coastal Commission notifying us that this (the fence) in fact is a violation, and that they are requesting the fence be removed and are willing to meet with county staff to discuss the best strategy to remove the fence,” Foley said from the dais.
She added, “I would move to continue this item to our next meeting and to direct staff to ask the Grand Jury for a continuance in light of the letter we received…”
But the idea didn’t play across the board.
“This grand jury no longer exists, it closed up shop on June 1,” said Wagner of a panel whose appointed members change every year. He questioned whether the grand jury would even respond to such a request.
He and Supervisor Andrew Do also deemed the Coastal Commission issue a separate one. Matt Miller at the county real estate office told Foley “the plan right now” would be to “coordinate with OC Parks and county counsel” in digesting the letter and later “present those findings to the board.”
Foley withdrew her request to continue the county’s formal response, and it became official with a vote in which Foley was the lone “No.” No other supervisor had questions about the sale.