A wealthy GOP political donor’s effort to enlarge his backyard with public coastal parkland would “irreparably” injure public access and impede wildlife movement in an otherwise “dedicated habitat area,” read new court filings by County of Orange officials. 

The statements are part of what’s now a privatization battle over a protected land parcel in Upper Newport Bay, which has long been fenced off and sought for ownership by an adjacent property owner and longtime political power broker named Buck Johns. 

With the help of former county supervisor and current Congresswoman Michelle Steel, Johns nearly bought the land for $13,000 in 2021, a price tag that county officials defended but sparked public backlash and a civic petition that ultimately slammed the sale’s brakes.

While the fence around the land still stands, Johns has taken his fight down the legal route, announcing a lawsuit against the county for the land last September, which now has county officials arguing against relinquishing control of the space before a judge. 

“Plaintiffs’ [Johns’] continued use and occupation of the […] state public trust land, bars all public use and the fencing impedes wildlife movement in an otherwise dedicated habitat area,” the county wrote in a Jan. 17 legal motion challenging the arguments of Johns’ lawsuit. 

“Plainly, the public would be clearly irreparably injured by Plaintiffs’ requested easement, equitable or otherwise, as it would prohibit all public use of the [park land].”

The land in question is part of state and federal conservation plans, which identify habitat reserve lands “meant to benefit […] threatened and endangered species,” reads the county motion, adding that passive recreational uses in the reserve land are permissible, while “residential uses are prohibited.”

The fence around the land purportedly predates the Johns’ family’s ownership and was installed around 1951, to separate the parcel from a nearby public trail.

Johns and his lawyers have argued that the family initially thought everything enclosed around the fence was theirs since acquiring the property on which their Back Bay home sits – going as far as personally financing the construction of a nearby county sediment catch basin to protect it.

The county, on the other hand, argues the property’s protected land status has been well documented.

After residents stopped the near-sale in 2021 and the fence remained around the property, two state agencies with jurisdiction over the land warned County of Orange officials to take the fence down. 

“The privatization of the property is not a permissible public trust use and is a violation of the Public Trust Doctrine,” read Sept. 9 a letter from Reid Boggiano, the State Lands Commission’s Granted Lands program manager, to county officials. “For all of these reasons, the County must remove the fence immediately from the Public Trust Parcel.”

It came after a similar written warning by the California Coastal Commission in August.

And a 20-page OC Grand Jury investigation report in 2022 found insufficient procedures for the sale of public lands, and voiced concern that “that the intervention of the office of a former Orange County Supervisor influenced the way in which a particular public land sale was handled.”

A public protest popped up outside the Johns’ home shortly after, calling for the fence’s removal on the same day people were walking into a political fundraiser on the property. 

Johns, who didn’t respond to requests for comment on Tuesday, now seeks an easement over the property, which is a land use right to someone else’s real estate. 

The lawsuit also points out that more than 3,100 square feet of land outside the fence was actually private family property, while previously believed to have been the county’s.

Both parties’ recent filings present the court with an early-stage question of whether Johns’ argument of fairness – that the court can balance the two parties’ interests over the property – overrides the land’s dedication as a natural resource.

There’s disagreement between the two over which legal standard applies to the land dispute, and whether the Johns family can acquire it.

Johns argues he’s seeking one type of easement while the county argues he’s actually seeking another. This had the two sides locked in dispute before OC Superior Court Judge William D. Claster last week, whose tentative ruling initially moved Johns’ lawsuit forward by overruling the county’s motion challenging his land ownership claims. 

At a hearing last Friday morning, however, Clasters ordered a further review by both parties on two issues: The exact nature of the easement sought by Johns, and whether the easement would constitute “irreparable harm” to the public.

“I think it’s fair to say that our arguments at the demurrer hearing gave the Court pause over whether the tentative ruling was correct,” said the county’s top lawyer, Leon Page, in a Tuesday emailed response to questions.

Page added:

“It’s a strictly legal issue of whether the public is harmed by the effective privatization of park land.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of the county counsel, Leon Page.

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