By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
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By Steve Lowery
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Photo by Keith MayGarry Brown takes a sip from the bottomless cup of coffee supplied by an open-air café facing Newport Harbor and looks toward the glistening water, and his eyes seem to look all the way back to his childhood.
"As a little kid, I'd stand on Newport Pier and haul in big bonito fishes," says the Anaheim native. "I'd walk along the beach, and there'd be seaweed and seashells."
In high school and college, Brown made it a point to visit the beach as much as possible, to walk the sea-sprayed piers and take in the view of the emerald ocean while driving along Pacific Coast Highway between Corona del Mar and Newport Beach.
Now that he's 48, the bonito and shells are gone. What little seaweed is left is usually wrapped around trash. So much garbage shoots out of storm drains after it rains that it looks as if one could walk across local harbors and beaches without touching water. Bacteria and viruses breed along the shores after sewage spills. Creeks and man-made channels that used to run into the ocean during the winter now run year-round with urban runoff bearing potentially harmful toxins.
"I remember how the coast was during my childhood," he says. "I see it as it is now, and I get angry."
He's turned that anger into action. In July, he launched Orange County CoastKeeper, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting local harbors, beaches and watersheds from pollution. Brown is now working and/or fighting with mighty developers, neglectful politicians and red-tape-noosed bureaucrats to clean our water.
"I don't think the history of Orange County shows a commitment to the environment at all," he says. "We're not saying there shouldn't be development. It's just got to be better-planned and have greater care for the environment. Nobody's suggesting developers shouldn't make good money, just maybe not so much at the expense of the environment."
With a chuckle, Brown says, "I'm an oxymoron: I'm an environmentalist Republican."
That's not the half of it. Brown once represented some of the most pernicious developers ever to scalp the Southern California landscape.
After graduating from Anaheim High School, Brown took morning classes at the University of Redlands, hopped on the freeway for an hour, and then spent late afternoons as foreman of It's a Small World at Disneyland. He later interned in the Redlands city manager's office, then moved full-time into City Hall after graduating from college in the early '70s. The city's idyllic downtown was about to undergo a much-needed revitalization, but Redlands had no redevelopment director. So the longtime city manager, eager for a new challenge, took on that task and handed most of his day-to-day duties to the twentysomething Brown.
It was an unusually important gig for a young man who also served as the town's chamber of commerce president. He resigned his job in 1976 but continued to visit City Hall, using his connections in government to lobby on behalf of San Bernardino County real-estate boards. Then—in a really odd twist, when you consider what he does now—he became executive director of the Baldy View chapter of the Building Industry Association (BIA) during the highflying '80s.
Southern California was experiencing a development boom then, nowhere more so than in western San Bernardino County, the area the Baldy View BIA covered. Former Cajon Pass dust collectors Fontana, Ontario and Rancho Cucamonga experienced unprecedented growth hammered out by good-ol'-boy politicians who were greased by the BIA, which represented the collective interests of builders and developers (including Newport Beach-based William Lyon Co.).
To put it in terms familiar to Orange County residents, the Baldy View BIA was every bit as powerful and politically entrenched in San Bernardino County as the Irvine Co. is in OC.
"San Bernardino County was totally controlled by developers," Brown says. "I sat in offices and heard major powers get on the telephone and tell [local elected officials] how [they were] going to vote, not ask."
Once, after a high-profile supervisor "screwed up" and was defeated in his re-election campaign by a virtual unknown, Brown worked his magic. The new supervisor did not have a political machine behind him; he simply won because voters were pissed-off at his predecessor.
"He didn't even know how the county operated that well," Brown says. "He was considered an environmental, slow-growth, no-growth candidate. At that time, Chino Hills was going to be blasting through, Rancho Cucamonga was blasting through, and so was South Fontana. No one wanted someone who was slow-growth or no-growth—especially some tree hugger."
Soon the local newspapers were "on [the new supe's] ass for being so green," Brown remembers. "He didn't know what he was doing." Worse, he had a $25,000 campaign deficit and no organization—or know-how—to raise money. And he was poised to appoint an environmentalist to a seat held by a BIA favorite on the county's shadowy and powerful planning commission.
Brown arranged a meeting with the supervisor. "I'm inviting you to a lunch next Wednesday at a little restaurant on Main Street in Colton," Brown recalls telling the elected official. "There will be 25 or 30 developers there who are all the owners of their companies. All of us just want to have lunch. None of us have met you. So be there, stand up, just introduce yourself, give honest opinions as you see it, and give everyone a chance to ask you questions and get to know you."