A public protest.
Two state agency warnings.
Interest is mounting around a single plot of coastal public parkland in Upper Newport Bay – and the private chain link fence surrounding it.
A Sept. 9 notice from the California State Lands Commission marked the second warning by state authorities within two months, over the County of Orange’s efforts to privately sell a land parcel that officials previously declared to be natural open space and public trust land in 2003.
“The privatization of the property is not a permissible public trust use and is a violation of the Public Trust Doctrine,” reads the letter from Reid Boggiano, the Commission’s Granted Lands program manager. “For all of these reasons, the County must remove the fence immediately from the Public Trust Parcel.”
It comes after a similar written warning by the California Coastal Commission in August.
And a 20-page OC Grand Jury investigation report before that.
Meanwhile, county Supervisors are set to mull over the Coastal Commission letter behind closed doors at their Tuesday, Sept. 13 meeting, said the County of Orange’s legal counsel, Leon Page, in an email last Thursday.
County spokesperson Molly Nichelson declined to comment on the fence controversy in a text message last Friday.
At the center of the drama is the land’s would-be buyer.
He’s a Newport Beach GOP political donor named Buck Johns, whose near-deal to buy the land for $13,000 from the County of Orange appeared to stop when county Supervisor Katrina Foley, a Democrat, singlehandedly pulled the deal while nearby residents halted it through civic action.
Yet with the sale apparently stopped, county officials have opted not to take the fence down – something local activists have demanded for aesthetic and symbolic reasons.
Voice of OC requests for comment to Johns went unreturned as of noon Monday.
Johns, through his attorneys, previously argued he believed he owned the land parcel, which was subject to ownership changes over the years between the Irvine Co. and the County of Orange.
His attorneys argued the land’s ownership history at the very least entitled Johns to an equitable easement over the property, meaning a nonpossessory right to it.
The contentious land deal most recently brought protests outside the Johns family home, right by the property, on Thursday – the same night that local GOP candidates and politicos gathered there for an election year fundraiser.
“Hi, would you like to join our protest for five minutes?” was the frequent question by one of Johns’ nearby neighbors, Susan Skinner, to people in formalwear as they crossed the street toward the evening event.
“No,” several would reply.
Across the event’s campaign-sign-adorned entrance, Skinner and a crowd of about 40-50 others held up their own signs, on the other side of the street:
“No Fence on Public Land!”
“THIS LAND BELONGS TO ALL OF US.”
One neighbor passing through the crowd asked everyone what it was all about.
Skinner replied that they were protesting the private fence around the hillside land parcel abutting Johns’ property.
“That’s been his property forever,” the neighbor said, the nearby music falling just within earshot.
“I’m going to challenge you on that,” Skinner replied.
“How long have you lived here?” the neighbor asked.
1960s, Skinner replied.
“Ok, I’ve been here for 36 years, and that fence makes our neighborhood safer,” the neighbor said.
A swell of objections rose up all around him and at once – “It’s public property.”
“So what? It’s up on the upper trail. You guys realize that? Go look at it,” the neighbor said, referring to the fact the land lies above the public access trail on a hillside.
“How would you feel if the fence was on your property?” one protester asked.
“It wouldn’t bother me at all,” the neighbor said before walking back inside his home with another person, one who was recognized and waved to by a protester named Jill Apperson, the founder of a teacher wellness app and resident of the same street.
The issue’s been steeped in OC’s political backdrop and has split the surrounding community accordingly, in the same way national politics tends to, Apperson observed, talking to Skinner after the exchange.
“It’s not neighbor-versus-neighbor. It’s a community issue,” Apperson said.
“Nobody else gets that size of land for cheap,” someone off to the side remarked at that same moment.
The near sale to Johns “would be a flagrant violation of the parcel’s dedication to the State, the County’s trust grant, and the Public Trust Doctrine,” reads the state Lands Commission’s letter.
“While the sale did not occur, the Grand Jury Report describes steps that were taken to sell the property, including a January 2021 Board of Supervisors vote to proceed with the sale,” reads the most recent letter from the lands commission. “Staff is concerned that the County may not have sufficient safeguards to ensure the management of its granted lands is consistent with its legal and fiduciary obligations.”
Signholders quickly became marchers on Thursday.
Led by Skinner, they formed a procession through Upper Bay Drive and then Mesa Drive, all the way to the Back Bay trail past all the homes. Two of them hoisted a flowing white banner addressed to the area’s Congresswoman, Michelle Steel, who’s accused of helping steer the sale through county staff at Johns’ request when she was a county supervisor.
Requests for comment from Steel, including on whether she was at Johns’ fundraiser Thursday night, went unreturned.
Though a video of the event posted to YouTube, by a channel called the Costa Mesa Brief, shows Steel as an apparent speaker, alongside fellow Republicans like Young Kim, Janet Nguyen, Diane Dixon, and Scott Baugh.
Steel previously denied any political favoritism.
By 6 p.m. that evening, marchers had reached the actual fence marked by an ADT security sign and the distant colors of American flags shaped like pleated fans, visible up the hill from different parts of the road and trail.
The small company of protesters then hung the same signs they marched with on the fence.
Dennis Bress, one local activist, shouted up at the fundraiser from behind the fence with a bullhorn.
“What do we want? To take down the fence! When do we want it? Now!”