Prominent GOP donor and Newport Beach resident Buck Johns has announced plans to sue the county government after plans to sell him a piece of public park land in Back Bay were put on ice last year. 

Meanwhile, protesters are calling for the private fence around the land to come down.

On Tuesday, county supervisors met behind closed doors on the issue. 

Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley singlehandedly pulled the item right as it was to be finalized last Spring. Residents organized themselves around a petition shortly after that action, and since then, the county hasn’t moved forward. 

On Tuesday, Johns’ attorney Patrick Munoz said his firm filed a lawsuit against the county on Monday, and provided Voice of OC with a draft copy, along with a letter to County of Orange officials, offering a rare public response to the criticism around the land dispute.  Click here to read the letter.

The lawsuit’s official copy didn’t yet show up on an online county court records search on Tuesday.

In the complaint forwarded by Munoz, Johns wants a superior court judge to grant him something called an “equitable easement,” or nonpossessory right over the property  in question, as well as monetary damages from the county for attorney fees related to the dispute. 

“No special favors existed, no land grab occurred, no sweetheart deal was concocted, and no change in circumstances were proposed,” reads Munoz’s county letter dated Sept. 12, with the aim of dispelling cries of undue political influence.

It comes amidst more recent calls by activists to tear down the private fence line which still encircles the Back Bay parcel – the visible marker of what’s become a contentious public land battle in line with a host of coastal access fights in recent California history. 

Critics – including everyone from the OC Grand Jury to the California Coastal Commission – now call the fence line a public access violation. 

Johns, through his attorney’s letter, said the fence was there as far back as the 1950s, predating the California Coastal Act of 1976, for instance, and that it also predated his ownership of the adjacent property, hence the property line confusion. 

“Our clients simply desire to maintain the exact status quo that has existed since approximately 1951,” reads Munoz’s letter. 

Johns’ attempt to formalize that situation kicked off a groundswell of community backlash.

Johns and County of Orange officials were poised to strike a deal around the parcel for $13,000, a price critics said was undervalued based on surrounding property values from the Treasurer-Tax Collector website. For instance, a nearby parcel was valued at more than $1 million.

Despite the public backlash, county officials haven’t removed the fence line. 

On Tuesday, supervisors discussed the Coastal Commission’s warning letter telling them to take the fence down. 

Newport Beach resident Jim Mosher, known for his public advocacy of state open meeting laws in Orange County, challenged supervisors to bring the closed session discussion into the light. 

During county supervisors’ public comment session Tuesday, Mosher requested the county to “publicly reveal which supervisors do not want the fence removed.”

I think the public deserves to know what the closed session is about, and deserves to know what the result of the closed session is,” Mosher said.

Johns, through his attorney’s letter, said any county attempt to remove that fence would prompt a request for a restraining order. 

“Until recently both the County and our clients believed in good faith that the Subject Property belonged to the Johns,” reads Munoz’s Sept. 12 letter, which requests to “resolve the mutual mistake” through an equitable easement over the property. 

The land never belonged to Johns in the first place, according to records attached to the very county appraisal he commissioned for the year 2020. 

In 1951, the property in question was part of a larger parcel conveyed by the Irvine Company to a local developer family known as the Holsteins. 

In 1970, the family conveyed the entire property back to the Irvine Company. Seven years later, the Holsteins conveyed a different nearby land parcel to the Johns family, but specifically excluded the disputed parcel now in question.

In 1989, the Irvine Co. donated the disputed parcel, marked by the fence line, to the County of Orange for passive recreational purposes. The county accepted that dedication in 1990.

Yet the fence line never went down.  

The above timeline was compiled into an email – located on Page 69 of the appraisal –  by the Irvine Company at Johns’ request, during the appraisal process in 2019, long before the sale had reached county supervisors. The email specifically thanked Johns for providing some of the information himself. 

Munoz declined to answer specific questions about the Johns’ family’s legal arguments. 

Johns is also seeking a court determination that the public Back Bay trail, which cuts into the southwest portion of the property he actually owns, constitutes an “uncompensated taking of private property,” as his lawsuit argues. 

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