Perpetual Indulgence

How taxpayers subsidize the Irvine Co.s Newport Coast development

• In part of the deal a ranking county employee admitted was "intriguing," supervisors quietly exempted the company from certain county taxes—perhaps as long as the past 11 years.

The Irvine Co. avoided debate over its windfall by focusing attention on the simultaneous transfer of 1,451 acres near state Highway 133 and Laguna Beach to the county's park and conservation system. By all accounts, that part of the deal is worthy of celebration. It helps complete the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, Aliso & Wood Canyons Regional Park, and Crystal Cove State Park, a swath of open land that shields Laguna Beach from encroaching development. But any aboveboard agreement would have transferred the land near Laguna Beach to the county without strapping taxpayers with the costs and liabilities of supporting in perpetuity the cliffs under a lucrative private-housing project three miles away at Newport Coast.

Irvine Co. executives are elated. Speaking on behalf of the company at the June 29 board meeting, Vice President Carol Hoffman said she is "really happy" and "pleased and happy that this property will be in the county's ownership." Without mentioning a single consequence or cost to taxpayers, Supervisor Tom Wilson enthusiastically noted that the county had "assumed ownership and responsibility"for the property. "Iwant to offer a hardy congratulations to the Irvine Co.,"said the man who—at the Irvine Co.'s request—was appointed to the board in 1996 by then-Governor Pete Wilson.

A decade ago, the Irvine Co. was arguably public enemy No. 1 in Orange County. Residents were still reeling from the company's self-serving push for toll roads, designs for massive office buildings on Pacific Coast Highway just south of Corona del Mar, and plans for tens of thousands of new houses, including 3,200 near the heart of the Laguna Wildlife Preserve. More than 7,000 people marched in protest in 1989. During the strife, then-Irvine Co. president Thomas Nielsen said, "Advertising itself will not solve the Irvine Co.'s problem. It must be done with public-relations tools." Ten years later, as construction at Newport Coast enters its final stages without even a whimper of protest, it is safe to say those tools worked. On June 20, an increasingly scary Times OC editorial page happily noted that the land-transfer agreement with the Irvine Co. represents "progress" and is something "to build on."

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