The community’s big open green dream refuses to die in Garden Grove. 

In March, city officials pulled the plug on the would-be redevelopment of one of central Orange County’s last open green spaces between two built-out and park poor cities. 

It’s called the Willowick Golf Course, all 104 acres of which sit under Garden Grove’s legal control. But it sits east of the Santa Ana River, thus within Santa Ana’s zoning authority.

And where Garden Grove officials seemed to reject the notion of preserving a major portion of the site’s green space – something called for by a surrounding community coalition that demanded more parks – Santa Ana made it a condition, through letters from one mayor to the other. 

Seeing no way out of the new open space rule, and thus no further development interest in the site, Garden Grove abruptly ended talks in March with three parties interested in acquiring the site.

But a June letter from state Housing and Community Development officials didn’t let City Hall walk away so easily. 

And on July 12, those who had vied for control over Willowick got their own. 

“The City of Garden Grove has received the attached correspondence dated June 3, 2022 […] which suggests that the City is required to solicit from you whether you are still interested in the Willowick Golf Course property given the change in Santa Ana’s approach to the property,” reads a copy that The Trust for Public Land got that day from Lisa Kim, Garden Grove’s assistant city manager. 

Meaning? 

There seems to be a path forward on the property, and it seems focused on the demands of Garden Grove’s neighboring City of Santa Ana. 

And all three parties that were originally in negotiations have indicated a persisting interest in the property, since the housing department’s letter, said Garden Grove City Attorney Omar Sandoval in a Monday written email. 

“The City has re-engaged in good faith negotiations with the proposers,” Sandoval said, declining to comment on the HCD letter.

One group in the running for the property, The Trust for Public Land, has the active support of the area’s open space activists and Rise Up Willowick neighborhood coalition. 

The Trust’s Program Director Robin Mark said her group indeed informed the city of its continued interest in the site, and met with officials over Zoom on Aug. 16. 

“And the outcome was very much the same,” Mark said in a Wednesday phone interview. “Our conversations are still going in circles, to be frank.” 

Mark said they’re still looking for a community space.

“We want to purchase the property for community benefits, for an open space that’s accessible to all. Garden Grove is intent on receiving a certain amount of money for the property … We’ve been sort of in this place where they’re asking us to get our ducks in a row to what they anticipate the property to be worth,” she said. 

But the Trust for Public Lands still has two other groups to contend with.

One group also in the running is Willowick Community Partners, an LLC formed and managed by three groups, including the affordable housing nonprofit Jamboree Housing. 

This group has namely eyed Willowick for its potential to help resolve a regional housing crisis, which advocates agree starts with housing construction, and thus hasn’t envisioned as much open space as Rise Up Willowick or the Trust for Public Land.

It’s sparked debate about the idea of feasibility when it comes to an underserved community’s demands, in the face of crucial quality of life gaps – and, for people outside of Rise Up Willowick, about balancing the needs of housing and open space with economic interest.

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“There’s obviously a point of tension between (us) and Garden Grove’s goals of monetizing and redeveloping Willowick and continuing to have some sort of control — even though they declared it surplus,” said Karen Romero Estrada, a policy aide for Anaheim Councilmember Jose Moreno and researcher at Rise Up Willowick. 

And all these questions come under a hyperlocal lens: The wants and needs of the surrounding Santa Anita neighborhood in Santa Ana, as well as the Buena Clinton neighborhood in Garden Grove. 

Rise Up Willowick and the Trust for Public Land pushed for affordable housing specifically, but less housing overall than other plans, as coalition members have seen open space as a more critical health need. 

Willowick Community Partners, by comparison, has a come-to-the-middle approach to market-rate housing, affordable housing, and open space – and argues that its proposal is more feasible for meeting Garden Grove’s desire for an economic return on the property. 

“We view our plan as a starting place,” said Kelsey Brewer, Jamboree’s senior director of business development and government affairs. “We imagine our plan will go through many different iterations.”

During the initial negotiations, open space activists criticized Willowick Community Partners for conducting minimal outreach in comparison with Rise Up Willowick. 

Brewer said the group has since hosted its first in-person community meeting with the Santa Anita Neighborhood Association, which took place on July 19. 

And then there’s McWhinney, a hotel resort developer that’s taking another crack at the property after its near-deal with Garden Grove fell through in 2019 amidst a lawsuit by open space activists.

Requests for comment from a McWhinney spokesperson went unreturned Monday. 

Meanwhile, the property is subject to the state’s Surplus Land Act, which prioritizes surplus public lands for housing and open space. 

Garden Grove previously refused to recognize the law until City Hall got hit with a lawsuit – now the city’s bound to it, as well as to the state housing department, which monitors the Surplus Land Act’s application to publicly owned lands up and down California. 

Namely, the law required Garden Grove to enter into “good faith” 90-day negotiations with the parties who came forward with interest in the golf course. 

City officials also had to document those negotiations for the housing department’s review. 

That documentation indeed reached the state agency.

But something was missing. 

“The City’s documentation does not indicate whether the City solicited interest from the

responding entities as to their continued interest in the Property given the change in

Santa Ana’s approach to the Property before ending the process,” reads a June 3 letter from David Zisser, the Housing and Community Development department’s assistant deputy director for local government relations and accountability.

“Therefore, the descriptions of negotiations submitted by the City do not adequately verify that good faith negotiations were completed,” Zisser’s letter reads. 

Zisser also said that Garden Grove couldn’t just drop the process in the first place. 

“The City is not permitted to withdraw that [Notice of Availability] if the City has received notices of interest,” he wrote. 

The Surplus Land Act has impacted other parts of Orange County this year. 

A public corruption scandal in Anaheim unspooled major weaknesses in the public land use law, prompting state Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) to take another look at a state law that was supposed to guard against the quick sale of public property to insiders, like the aborted sale of Angel Stadium to a developer group led by the baseball team’s owner Arte Moreno. 

Namely, public land deals can’t be voided under the law – even if found to be in violation of it – and local agencies aren’t required to send the land out for rebid. 

When California Attorney General Rob Bonta concluded the 2020 Angel Stadium sale violated the Surplus Land Act, he fined the City of Anaheim $96 million but let the deal go through with some additional affordable housing requirements. 

Then the FBI contacted Bonta’s office, alerting them to an investigation into the sale process, the Chamber of Commerce’s former CEO Todd Ament, and former mayor Harry Sidhu.

In June, Umberg introduced Senate Bill 361 to empower HCD to nullify land deals – and mandate that they be rebid – if found to be in violation of the Surplus Land Act. 

The measure would have also required cities to provide at least 14 days’ notice for meetings on ratifying any proposed land deal.

But Umberg killed his own bill a month later, after it went through the state Assembly Appropriation committee, which Umberg – in an Aug. 29 statement sent out to reporters – said “sided with special interests in Orange County and California to essentially gut SB 361.”

The committee “chose to narrow this bill to one city and remove the enforcement mechanism. The agencies and governments opposed to SB 361 threw every excuse in the book at the wall to try to find something that would stick in an attempt to stall this effort,” Umberg said. “This should speak volumes to the public about why we haven’t seen a major uptick in affordable housing and the ‘roadblocks’ instituted by local governments in this effort.”

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