CA Coastal Commission calls on OC to tear down private fence on controversial Back Bay Park
More than a year after backing down, Orange County officials still find themselves fending off the heat by nearly selling a protected public park to a wealthy Newport Beach political donor.
And the questions keep coming from different directions.
First, it was Newport Beach residents who saw the sale as an aesthetic affront to the publicly accessible Upper Newport Bay – and stopped it with a civic petition. County Supervisor Katrina Foley single-handedly suspended the sale at the county government level.
Then there was an OC grand jury report in June, putting a 20-page microscope into the extent to which the deal was aided by the county’s top realtors and parks.
Now the state Coastal Commission has stepped in, calling on the county to reclaim land from a chain-link fence that stood around it.
[Read: OC Officials Back Off on Reclaiming Public Back Bay Land from Newport Political Donor]
The fence marks what was nearly sold to a well-known GOP influencer named Buck Johns, who planned to consolidate it with his adjacent property.
The county backed away from removing the fence after a warning letter from Johns’ attorneys.
Grand jurors say the county “conveyed” the public land to private use by leaving the fence in place.
Now a state enforcement officer wants it.
“The property is held by the public in perpetuity and should therefore be made available to the public for use and as open space,” reads an Aug. 17 letter from the law enforcement officer. District Nicholas Tealer to OC Parks Manager Tom Starnes.
Neither Johns nor his attorney, Patrick Munoz, responded to requests for comment on the closing. A Munoz secretary said he was out of town and unreachable.
Johns, through his attorneys, argued that for a long time he “believed” he owned the parcel of land, which was subject to ownership changes over the years, between Irvine Co. and County of Orange.
Next, Johns argued that the ownership history of the land at least entitled him to an equitable easement over the property, which is the non-possessory right to use the property without owning it.
The state’s letter caused Foley to pause at Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Board of Supervisors. Supervisors were close to finalizing the county’s official response to the Grand Jury’s report, denying most of its findings. Newport Beach resident Jim Mosher called the county’s response “annoying” from the public speaker podium.
A slew of scathing written comments submitted to the council online called the county’s denials “ridiculous” or “disappointing.”
Grand jurors wrote that county staff pushed the sale at the behest of the office of Foley’s predecessor, now congresswoman Michelle Steel.
The Citizens’ Oversight Committee also said county staff reports on the sale were “conclusive, incomplete and contained misrepresentations.”
The county’s official response to these findings reads: “Staff reports submitted to the Commission and Council regarding this potential sale are inconclusive, incomplete or contain inaccurate statements. Neither the Second District Supervisor nor his office exerted any undue influence. »
Steel also denied being biased toward Johns, the donor who gave directly to his 2020 Congressional campaign.
Yet a previous Voice of OC story about frequent email communications between Johns and his office staff, the correspondence said Johns would also frequently ask county staff for updates on the sales process.
Grand jurors also found that the county failed to properly notify the public, beyond a paper notice slapped on a post near the trail plot.
County Response: “The County has complied with all legal posting and notification requirements.”
“Instead of taking to heart the recommendations […] the county ignores many of the findings and points blame elsewhere,” Melanie Schlotterbeck wrote in a letter on behalf of Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks (FHBP). The group began monitoring county parks policy after the county went bankrupt in the 1990s.
Schlotterbeck added, “Instead of advancing a transparent outcome, the county is trying to keep quiet about the public park sales.”
“Take down the damn fence. No more excuses,” wrote a commenter named Marcus Harris.
Foley asked the board not to formalize the county’s denial of the grand jury’s findings.
“Last night we received a letter from the Coastal Commission advising us that this (the fence) is in fact a violation, and that they are requesting that the fence be removed and are prepared to meet with county staff to discuss the best strategy to remove the fence,” Foley said from the stage.
She added: “I would suggest we pursue this item at our next meeting and ask the staff to ask the Grand Jury to continue in light of the letter we received…”
But the idea did not play out in all directions.
“That grand jury no longer exists, it closed on June 1,” Wagner said of a panel whose appointed members change every year. He wondered if the grand jury would even respond to such a request.
He and supervisor Andrew Do also felt the Coast Commission issue was separate. Matt Miller of the county real estate office told Foley that “the plan at this time” would be to “coordinate with OC Parks and the county attorney” to digest the letter and later “present those findings to council.”
Foley withdrew his request to pursue the county’s official response, and it became official with a vote in which Foley was the only “no”. No other supervisor had any questions about the sale.