A chain-link fence on a blufftop overlooking Newport Beach’s Back Bay is at the center of a war between environmentalists and a wealthy Republican donor.
On one side of the fence is the private home of longtime political rainmaker Buck Johns. On the other side is the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve and a popular trail used by bicyclists, hikers and equestrians.
Part of the land claimed by Johns, nearly one-third of an acre, actually belongs to the county of Orange. But it has been fenced since before Johns owned the home, perhaps for decades. Now activists want the fence taken down. And state agencies and the Orange County grand jury agree.
For his part, Johns filed a lawsuit this month to keep the county from touching the fence — not that it wants to. Orange County officials were poised in 2019 to sell the triangular-shaped property to Johns for an appraised value of $13,000, far below the $1.1 million valuation that activists say was appraised for a similar parcel.
And therein lies the debate. Is this a case of a rich, powerful man exerting his influence to take a piece of pristine parkland — home to Savannah sparrows and the California gnatcatcher — from the public? Or a longtime error that can only be resolved by keeping the status quo?
‘It’s government property’
“It’s very simple,” said county Supervisor Katrina Foley, a Democrat. “It’s public land that someone put a private fence on, so the fence needs to come down. It’s not for sale. It’s government property.”
Or as the grand jury put it in June, Johns “has effectively usurped that valuable land parcel at no cost and without the permission of the State Lands Commission or the Coastal Commission. The fence is an eyesore.”
Foley’s colleagues on the Board of Supervisors don’t see it that way. They responded to the grand jury that the removal of the fence was “not warranted and not reasonable.”
“The property at issue is a slope that has no public recreational amenities located on the fenced-in real property and provides no apparent public park benefit,” said the county response.
Johns and his attorney did not respond to requests for comment, except to send a copy of their lawsuit claiming inverse condemnation — which means the government is taking action that greatly devalues the plaintiff’s property, which he purchased in 1977.
The fence debacle was first reported by the Voice of OC online news site.
The property in question is technically part of a land donation in 1989 by the Irvine Company to the county, on the condition it be preserved as park land. The bluff top is governed by the county as well as the state Coastal Commission.
In 2003, the county dedicated the preserve as state public trust land.
With the support of then-Supervisor Michelle Steel, the county took steps in 2019 to sell the environmentally sensitive land with no restrictions to Johns. Steel was elected to Congress in 2020, with help from a $2,800 donation Johns made to her the same year that he was trying to buy the property.
Steel’s successor on the county board, Foley, effectively blocked the sale, triggering the land war.
Steel’s office did not return two messages seeking comment.
County ‘politically driven’
In a Sept. 12 letter to the county, Johns’ attorney, Patrick Munoz, labeled the challenge to Johns’ ownership of the disputed property as “politically driven.”
“The Grand Jury report shows a complete lack of understanding of the actual facts,” wrote Munoz. “It ignores the undisputed fact that until recently both the county and our clients believed in good faith that the subject property belonged to the Johns (sic).”
The lawsuit maintains that some kind of fencing has blocked off the property since 1951.
“The Grand Jury report has a tone which makes it sound as if our clients used some mysterious, nefarious political power to steal away valuable land from the county at a substantial discount. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Munoz wrote. “Our clients simply desire to maintain the exact status quo that has existed since approximately 1951.”
However, that status quo would deny the public access to a slope that activists say could be better managed to support the sensitive ecosystem and perhaps make a great picnic area.
Environmentalists weigh in
Suzanne Welsh, volunteer coordinator with Orange County Coastkeeper, said the wildlands can’t be properly managed with the fence intact.
“We’re just in support of public access to public property,” Welsh said, adding that the county appraisal was way too low.
“If somebody gave me the opportunity to get bayfront property for $13,000, I’d snap it up in a second,” she said.
Welsh also complained about the slowness of the county to react.
“We’re in a pivotal moment,” she said, “and the public is asking for decisions to be made.”
Fence an ‘affront’ to citizens
In a letter to the county board, Orange County doctor Susan Skinner decried the supervisors’ inaction.
“The fact that Buck Johns’ fence remains around that property is an affront to the citizens who put you in office. It is true that there are no public amenities on the property, but does that devalue it as public land in any way?” Skinner wrote. “The fence inappropriately privatizes the property, keeping both the public and wildlife off of it. It needs to come down.”
The Coastal Commission warned the county in August that the fence is a violation of the Coastal Act, which defines how the state’s coastline is developed or protected from development. The commission warned that Orange County could be held liable for any “corrections” from the taking of public land.
Staff Writer Alicia Robinson contributed to this report.
Source: Orange County Register