Bad Deeds Go Unpunished

Officials say discovery that county parks are open for development is no big deal

Photo by Keith MayA new county report shows that one-third of the county's 27,000 acres of parkland lack any legal protections against development and that fully half of the entire park system—more than 13,000 acres—is collateral for the county's bankruptcy recovery bonds.

The Harbors, Beaches & Parks (HBP) report was met with incredulity by the woman who discovered that many of the county's park deeds do not explicitly rule out encroachment by land developers.

"For God's sake, the county doesn't have a system set up?" asked Shirley Grindle, an Orange resident and good-government advocate. "Without the deed restrictions, the county is able to issue encroachment permits for the good-for-nothing developers. I am livid about that."

The only reason HBP knows any of this is because of Grindle. In December, she began combing through the deeds for Santiago Oaks Park, hoping to find a way to prevent a proposed road from bisecting the park on its way through nearby Barham Ranch—a 570-acre chunk of land unchanged since the 1850s, when bandit Joachim Murieta supposedly waited there to ambush the Wells Fargo Stage. She'd like to see Barham joined to the park.

What she found astonished her. Only nine of Santiago Oaks Park's 454 acres are protected against development within the deed itself. Other park deeds were similarly chaotic.

The report, written for the April 6 Parks Commission meeting, also explains why development in parks like Whiting Ranch and Laguna Canyon has already taken place. In those parks, the previous owner had written allowances into the deeds allowing future development. In the case of quiet, wooded Whiting Ranch in Foothill Ranch, this meant the construction of a massive metal water reservoir in 1997. Of course, this paled next to the damage done when the county proceeded with construction of the 73 toll road through Laguna Canyon.

Parks lacking at least some deed-restricted acreage include Aliso and Wood Wilderness Park, Ronald W. Caspers Park, Irvine Regional Park, Featherly Regional Park, O'Neill Regional Park, Whiting Ranch, and Santiago Oaks Park. Additionally, the report shows that the deed restrictions on Caspers (in San Juan Capistrano), Harriet Wieder (Huntington Beach), William Mason (Irvine) and Laguna Niguel parks will expire over the next three decades. The report also shows the deed restrictions on the 211-acre Talbert Nature Preserve (Huntington Beach) expired two years ago.

Despite the revelation, Parks Commission staff refused to recommend that commissioners move quickly to restrict all deeds to all the county's parks. Their report explained that such a course of action "would tend to diminish both value and flexibility." In addition, "by voluntarily establishing deed restrictions, they may hinder the ability to accommodate future legitimate park-related or non-park-related needs," such as roads, bridges or "telecommunication facilities." The Parks Commission will take up the matter again in June.

"This isn't a situation where everything the county owns should be deed-restricted," said Grindle. "Sometimes the county gets leftover parts of land from developments—I have no problem if there aren't any deed restrictions on those. And I don't have a problem with not deed-restricting some parts of urban parks to make revenue. But wilderness parks are different."

The lack of deed restrictions shows that the county has never developed a consistent policy for taking title to land destined to become a public park or nature preserve. Rather, the deeds to such parcels—acquired through land grants or purchases or as mitigation for other development—were written at the whim of whichever county official happened to close the deal.

"A park may consist of 50 or more parcels," said Bob Hamilton, project manager for HBP. "Some of them have been acquired literally over the course of a hundred years. Policy and real-estate practices reflect evolution over time."

The report downplays the threat posed to parks like Santiago Oaks by outlining the "layering of restrictions" that encompass county parks. This includes county general plan classifications as well as state and federal grant restrictions. Taken together, these restrictions cover all county parkland and require various measures and approvals to allow development.

But Grindle explained that, without specific deed restrictions, the parks aren't subject to the county's so-called park abandonment law. Under that law, it takes the signatures of just 200 local residents to reject development of a county park. As the Santiago Oaks Park deeds are written, for example, the county Board of Supervisors could vote to build practically anything on virtually all the parkland following a public hearing and a simple majority vote of the board.

 
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