Don Bren's Gift That Keeps On Taking Public Money (or Trying to, Anyway)
The Gift That Keeps On Taking
Don Bren’s Irvine Ranch Conservancy wants $20 million in public funds to manage land that he’s ‘giving’ the county
East of Irvine’s rote stucco glens, where the streetlights finally fade and the wild things still roam, 20,000 acres of jutting limestone peaks and dewy canyon bottoms strewn with live oaks testify to the way it was in Orange County.
Irvine Co. mogul Donald Bren has hung onto this rugged edge of his sprawling ranch for decades, largely because it was unbuildable. But he has used it well: to win the nation’s largest conservation tax breaks, to gain permits to slice and dice coastal plains into tract homes, and to win PR points for the natural wonders he has “given” and “preserved” and “set aside.” Time and again, company press releases have trumpeted the dedication of parts of this same swath of pristine open space by the chairman of the board.
Now, as his life’s work on the ranch winds down, Bren’s people have been in discussions with OC Parks about really giving the open space to the public. Not so fast, says the county’s conservation community. Last month, they persuaded the county Board of Supervisors to slow down and take a closer look at what the actual costs to the public of this “free gift” could be. Activists are now urging anyone with concerns about the costs of the land gift to write to their county supervisor.
But while their worries center on the price tag for managing the gifted land, there is another potential cost—a big one.
Bren’s lavishly funded, private Irvine Ranch Conservancy (IRC) has formally requested $20 million in taxpayers’ money from the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) to “restore” 2,000 acres of open space, nearly all of which is in that same 20,000-acre area on Bren’s massive ranch. That money would be the lion’s share of an estimated $29 million expected to roll in from a half-cent highway sales taxes for such work.
Measure M, renewed by voters in 2006, is expected to yield $11 billion over 30 years for everything from traffic lights to new freeway lanes. A tiny percentage of the highway-expansion portion is earmarked to buy or spruce up habitat similar to what will be destroyed by adding another lane on the 91 freeway, for instance.
Conservationists are not happy. They note the tax money would help keep Bren’s private conservancy in control of sensitive parts of public land and that it would be on top of millions more that county officials may pay the group to manage the land. Some who worked hard for passage of Measure M argue that they deserve a crack at the money, too.
“That sounds like a complete usurping of this fund,” says Gloria Sefton, founder of the much-smaller Saddleback Ranch Conservancy, which is fighting to preserve land not owned by Bren at the doorstep of the Cleveland National Forest. “I get pretty suspicious when there’s a privately run organization that is established and funded by the Irvine Co. that wants this public money.”
The IRC board also includes Bren’s real-estate senior vice president Dan Young and other top staff. If his conservancy keeps managing the lands, some fear the notoriously controlling Bren could still influence what happens on fragile land near his development projects.
“I’m all in favor of public access and public control,” says Sefton. “Private entities, they generally have a goal . . . usually having to do with their own economic well-being, and that may not always be aligned with what’s best for the public.”
IRC executive director Michael O’Connell strenuously disagreed. “Oh, there’s so much that is incorrect in that,” says O’Connell. “This is about where the highest priorities are for the land. It has nothing to do with the Irvine Co. at all. They’re not involved at all; they’re not promoting the [Measure M] proposal; they’re not working on it. This is our effort. . . . Dan Young and Donald Bren are not involved.”
O’Connell, a Yale-educated conservation scientist, says the funds would be used to rip out invasive weeds and plant native seeds and help to restore 2,000 acres of the highest-priority coastal sage scrub, grasslands and oak woodlands for wildlife “within the boundaries of the historic Irvine ranch.”
He says he hadn’t asked Bren to fund the project because he’d heard about the sales-tax funds and decided that was a better route. “Right now, there are better alternatives,” he says.
Some think the proposal is a bid by the conservancy to stay in existence because its multibillionaire godfather may be getting ready to cut off its allowance after turning over the open space to OC Parks. Bren has poured $20 million into the conservancy since its creation in 2004, including nearly $2 million this year, according to charitable tax returns.
“It’s my belief that it’s public money that will keep this organization going. Bren does not want to fund this any further,” says Theresa Sears, a Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks board member who has monitored privatization efforts on county and city lands. Under IRC’s Measure M proposal, “they’d get $2 million a year for 10 years.”
As for the habitat restoration, Sears stressed that the Measure M restoration funds are needed throughout the county. “For them to apply for these funds, no, that’s not right,” she says. “I think what needs to happen is, if you have a deficiency, then fix it before you turn over the land.”
The $20 million could come on top of other public outlays to the IRC. County parks commissioners who signed off on the land transfer in September say they would prefer to outsource management if the public assumes ownership. Commissioner Brian Probolsky says he didn’t want “ballooning union employee costs” as a result of having to manage an additional 20,000 acres.
O’Connell, who is currently paid $280,000 in salary and benefits by Bren, says none of the Measure M funding would be used to pay his salary or other administrative costs. Ditto for the annual$1.5 million county officials are considering paying IRC to continue guided tours, fire watch and other programs on the land, which have been funded by Bren.
But the costs of retaining the conservancy could be far higher than adding new public employees. O’Connell’s group already has lucrative contracts with the cities of Irvine and Newport Beach to manage land once owned by the company.
Records show Irvine paid less than $300,000 annually to city staff to manage open space before the conservancy took over. Now, taxpayers there are on the hook for $733,000 per year to IRC, plus costs for police security once provided by private Irvine Ranch patrols. O’Connell defended his organization’s work in Irvine, saying they had tripled guided tours, developed trails and done habitat restoration.
The final decision on the sales-tax allocations will be up to the OCTA board, which is largely made up of county supervisors and city officials.
Melanie Schlotterbeck, a consultant who represents a coalition of 30 Orange County environmental groups on the transportation agency’s environmental oversight committee, says she was surprised when O’Connell showed up with a lengthy application for so much money.
“We have not even asked for formal proposals yet. He was the only one who submitted one like this,” she says. While Schlotterbeck says she and other committee members are taking a wait-and-see attitude on all funding requests, she says she was concerned about the potential for politicization in awarding of the monies. An environmental consultant is currently conducting a review of the county’s biological needs to see which projects would be the best fit.
Some question why Measure M money is being used for restoration projects at all, as opposed to acquisition of more open space from struggling landowners who could use the cash. The fact that an arm of one of the nation’s wealthiest landowners could end up with millions adds to that frustration.
“They don’t need this; it’s like gravy for them,” says Sefton. “They should step aside and let others have it.”
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