A public demonstration.
Two warnings from the state agency.
Interest is mounting around a single piece of coastal public parkland in Upper Newport Bay – and the private chain-link fence that surrounds it.
A Sept. 9 notice from the California State Lands Commission marked the second warning from state authorities in two months, regarding Orange County’s efforts to privately sell a parcel of land that authorities had previously declared to be a open natural space and public land in 2003.
“Privatization of property is not an authorized use of public trust and is a violation of the
Public Trust Doctrine,” reads the letter from Reid Boggiano, director of the Commission’s Granted Lands program. “For all of these reasons, the county must immediately remove the fence from the public trust plot.”
This follows a similar written warning from the California Coastal Commission in August.
And a 20-page OC Grand Jury investigative report before that.
Meanwhile, county supervisors should consider the letter from the Coastal Commission behind closed doors at their meeting on Tuesday, September 13, Orange County legal counsel Leon Page said in an email last Thursday. .
County spokeswoman Molly Nichelson declined to comment on the fence controversy in a text message last Friday.
At the center of the drama is the potential buyer of the land.
He’s a Newport Beach GOP political donor named Buck Johns, whose quasi-deal to buy the land for $13,000 from Orange County seemed to stall when County Supervisor Katrina Foley, a Democrat, called her alone made the deal while neighboring residents stopped it through civic action. .
Yet even with the sale halted, county officials opted not to pull down the fence — something local activists demanded for aesthetic and symbolic reasons.
Voice of OC requests for comment to Johns were not returned midday Monday.
Johns, through his attorneys, had previously argued that he believed he owned the parcel of land, which was subject to ownership changes over the years between Irvine Co. and Orange County.
His lawyers argued that the ownership history of the land at least entitled Johns to an equitable easement over the property, which is the non-possession right to use the property without owning it.
The controversial land deal recently sparked protests outside the Johns family home, right next to the property, on Thursday — the same night GOP politicians and their families gathered there for a fundraiser the election year.
“Hi, would you like to join our demonstration for five minutes?” was a frequent question from one of Johns’ close neighbors, Susan Skinner, to people in formal wear as they walked across the street to the evening event.
“No,” many would reply.
On the other side of the campaign sign-adorned entrance to the event, Skinner and a crowd of about 40-50 others held up their own signs, across the coastal suburban street:
“No fence on public lands!”
“THIS LAND BELONGS TO ALL OF US.
A neighbor walking through the crowd asked everyone what the fuss was about.
Skinner replied that they were protesting the private fence around the hillside parcel of land adjoining Johns’ property.
“It’s always been his property,” the neighbor said, music from the nearby fundraiser falling just within earshot.
“I’m going to challenge you on that,” Skinner replied.
“How long have you lived here?” asked the neighbor.
1960s, Skinner replied.
“Okay, I’ve been here 36 years, and this fence makes our neighborhood safer,” the neighbor said.
A wave of objections rose all around him and immediately – “It’s public property.”
“So what? It’s on the upper trail. Do you realize that? Go check it out,” the neighbor said, referring to the fact that the land is above the hillside public access trail. .
“How would you feel if the fence was on your property? asked one protester.
“I wouldn’t mind at all,” the neighbor said, before returning to his neighboring house with a family member, who was recognized and greeted by a protester named Jill Apperson, founder of the wellness app. be JabuMind and a resident of the same street.
The issue was rooted in OC’s political context and divided the surrounding community accordingly, much as national politics tends to do, Apperson observed, speaking to Skinner after the exchange.
“It’s not neighbor against neighbor. It’s a community issue,” Apperson said.
“Nobody else gets that size of land on the cheap,” someone nearby remarked at the same time.
The quasi-sale to Johns “would be a flagrant violation of the parcel’s dedication to the state, the county’s trust grant, and the doctrine of public trust,” reads the letter from the Lands Commission of the state.
“Although the sale did not occur, the grand jury report outlines the steps that were taken to sell the property, including a January 2021 Supervisory Board vote to proceed with the sale,” it read. in the latest letter from the land commission. “Staff are concerned that the county does not have sufficient safeguards to ensure that the management of its grant lands complies with its legal and fiduciary obligations.”
Sign carriers quickly turned into walkers on Thursday.
Led by Skinner, they formed a procession through Upper Bay Drive and then Mesa Drive, to the Back Bay Trail past all the houses. Two of them hoisted a waving white banner addressed to area MP Michelle Steel, who is accused of helping lead the sale through county staff at Johns’ request when she was county supervisor.
Steel’s requests for comment, including whether she was at Johns’ fundraiser on Thursday night, were not returned. Johns was a big contributor to Steel’s 2020 Congressional campaign.
Steel has previously denied any political patronage.
By 6 p.m. that evening, walkers had reached the actual fence marked by an ADT private security sign and the distant colors of American flags in the shape of pleated fans, visible up the hill from different parts of the road and of the trail.
The small company of protesters then hung the same signs with which they marched on the fence.
Dennis Bress, a local activist, shouted at the fundraiser from behind the fence with a megaphone.
“What do we want? Tear down the fence! When do we want it? Now!”