Down a dusty hillside to Upper Newport Bay, where recreational enthusiasts share a path that skirts the marshy water, is a chain-link fence separating public land from a sprawling lot overlooking the bay.
But the entire fenced-in area isn’t owned by homeowner Buck Johns, a wealthy energy executive and prominent Republican donor who tried to buy the property from Orange County in 2019, a purchase that was ultimately turned down.
About a third of an acre is actually public parkland, and the plaza has become a hotbed of discourse in recent years as residents have criticized the blocked access amid allegations of political favouritism.
“I walk by every day on a six-mile hike. I think this is beautiful public parkland and it is very unfortunate that part of it is fenced off. If we let it happen here, it will happen elsewhere,” said David Lumion, a Newport Beach resident who was among dozens at the local protest last week.
A small but vocal group of about 40 protesters gathered outside John’s home Thursday and marched down the path leading to his fence as Johns hosted a midterm campaign party for Republican officials. A woman who smoked a cigarette outside of the GOP affair declined to comment on the fence issue.
“There’s a big red wave coming,” she said instead.
Last month, the California Coastal Commission weighed in on the debate, saying the county must remove the fence to allow public access to the site.
The property is located within the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve, a 135-acre cliff-top park that is home to thousands of birds, including peregrine falcons.
Johns and Orange County are locked in a battle over the land, the Voice of the OC reported. He tried to buy the property in 2019 and said he used to own it. It’s unclear if Johns had any plans for the package.
Former County Supervisor Michelle Steel’s staff spent more than a year guiding Johns through the labyrinthine land-buying process, helping him find an appraiser who valued the property at $13,000 — an amount from which some local residents say it is below market value.
During that time, the energy magnate donated $2,800 to Steel’s successful 2020 convention campaign.
“We really appreciate the good working relationship with the Supervisor Steel staff,” Johns wrote in an email.
A spokeswoman for Steel declined to comment on the interaction.
The deal to sell the land, which public documents declared in 1990 as “public use and enjoyment,” sparked outrage among Orange County residents.
“This should be a level playing field, and the fact that Buck Johns is an influential Republican donor has given him a special privilege, I think,” Susan Skinner said in an interview. The Orange County doctor helped collect 1,300 signatures on a petition against the sale last year.
The transaction never happened. When the final vote came before the County Board of Supervisors in April 2021, Steel had left to begin her term in Congress. She was replaced on the board by Katrina Foley, a Democrat who is much less friendly to the plan.
At Foley’s first meeting in office, she filed The optional. She later used her “district prerogative” to remove the sale from the board’s agenda.
“It’s crystal clear that it’s county land. It never was [Johns’]’ Foley told the Times in an interview. “He thinks if he just puts up a fence it will suddenly become his land, but that’s not how the Public Land Act works.”
Johns, who declined to comment on the fence flap, couldn’t even count on the support of his neighbors. Jill Apperson, whose property borders the fence, said she was disheartened when she learned of the proposed sale.
“Especially during the pandemic, I saw so many people using this land and so many people wanting to walk in the park,” she said. “People were like, ‘Wait, why would you sell that?’ ”
Following Skinner’s petition, an Orange County grand jury examined procedures for the sale of public beaches, nature preserves, parks and other recreational areas and concluded that “has [Steel] had stayed in office, the sale of these properties would most likely have gone through.”
In June, she recommended the county take down the fence by the end of 2022 “to return the land to its natural (pristine) state.”
However, Johns’ attorneys threatened litigation if the fence was removed and the county left the barrier intact, saying the headland was unusable and “offered no apparent benefit to the public park.”
In August, the California Coastal Commission entered the fray, finding the fence violates the Coastal Act, which, among other things, emphasizes the importance of public access to California’s coast.
“We’re seeing public space fragmentation all along the coast … from sea level rise eating up beaches on the one hand, to private encroachment on the other,” said Andrew Willis, the commission’s enforcement manager. “We really have to fight for every square meter of public space.”
The commission warned Orange County in an Aug. 17 letter that it could be held liable for violators if it didn’t remove the fence. The parks department, board of directors and county counsel are reviewing the letter, a county spokeswoman said.
The board plans to discuss the issue in a closed session on Tuesday, according to a letter from the district council.
And Foley will no doubt continue to argue that the fence should come down.
“If it were gone you could sit and meditate up there, looking out at the beautiful view. That’s 10,000 square feet of land,” she said.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-09-13/wealthy-o-c-insider-blocks-access-to-upper-newport-bay-with-fence Homeowner’s fence in Newport’s Back Bay sparks O.C. battle