UPDATED WITH PHOTOS FROM THE BOARD OF SUPERVISORS MEETING . . .
He's got a gift. Donald Bren, the secretive, aging multi-billionaire who chairs The Irvine Co., has an undisputed gift for preservation. He sets aside, and preserves, and then preserves yet again the mostly steep, landslide prone, unbuildable portions of his sprawling ranch lands, which stretch from the Pacific Ocean more than 20 miles inland to the Riverside County border.
Time and again, company press releases have trumpeted the dedication of thousands of acres of pristine open space by the chairman of the board. Limestone Canyon has repeatedly been dubbed Orange County's "Grand Canyon" and "crown jewel." And over nearly two decades, Bren has also used the open space set asides to cut development deals in endangered species habitat, win the largest conservation easement tax breaks in U.S. history, and wreathe himself and his legacy in laurels from federal and state parks officials.
Now, the Irvine Co. chairman really wants to give it to the people of Orange County. This time, the press releases proclaim that he is ready to turn over, once and for all, 20,000 acres of rugged wild lands at the county's eastern edge to the public.
Not so fast, says the county's conservation community. Like Bren, some are now in their late 70s, and they've been battling him as long as he's been bulldozing sage scrub for master planned tract homes. For them, any gift from The Irvine Co. is worth examining closely to see what strings might be hiding under the tidy bows and shiny wrappings.
Two weeks ago, the county parks commission unanimously approved accepting the 20,000 acre gift, and outsourcing if possible the management of the open space. Since then, conservations groups have been begging county officials to slow down and take a closer look.
"This is a great idea, we just want you to be cautious, to lay out the costs too," said Carolyn Wood, president of the Laguna Canyon Conservancy, addressing the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday morning.
She and others worry about the financial liability to a strapped county parks department, and possible additional crime and destruction of wild lands if they are opened up willy nilly to the public. They point to damage on other lands donated by the company in the past because of a lack of tax dollars for maintenance. And they worry who will control the supposedly public lands. A clause in the letter of intent put to the board for a vote on Tuesday could ensure that Bren's hand-picked, handsomely paid Irvine Ranch Conservancy staff would continue to oversee the lands. The remaining $4.6 million of $50 million that he set aside to manage the lands could end up in paychecks and expenses for his own foundation.
Michael O'Connell, IRC's director, said his salary was not paid for out of the $50 million, but was part of a separate donation. He said while his group might handle the transition phase, he was not even sure they wanted to manage the lands long-term. O'Connell earns nearly $300,000 in salary, benefits and expenses each year, records show. Despite their short track record, the group has won praise from community groups, docents and others for aggressive fire prevention, land restoration and trail development.
Irvine Co. vice president Dan Miller said the aim of the gift was pure and simple, to turn over the land to the public. In fact, he said, it was partly aimed at eliminating criticism that a real estate developer was overseeing open space. He also said there was no intent to rush a
"We still have a lot of work to do," he told the board. "We understand that."
Most supervisors and county parks officials praised the proposed donation, saying they were "honored, even humbled" by the "incredible" and "glorious" gift of "stunning proportions."
The land is unquestionably beautiful, all sides agree, with rugged ravines, hillsides strewn with massive live oaks, golden eagle habitat, and mountain lions, bobcats and rare songbirds in residence.
Fourth District supervisor Chris Norby was a bit more sanguine. Norby, who represents the county's heavily populated, northern urban areas where there is little open space, noted that ancient wisdom was divided between "don't look a gift horse in the mouth," and "beware of
Greeks bearing gifts."
"I believe this is somewhere in between," he said. "This is a gift horse. But we have looked it in the mouth, and we like what we see."
The board voted unanimously to approve an "understanding" between the county, The Irvine Co. and The Nature Conservancy that will ultimately result in transfer of the lands to public ownership.
But they paid heed to Jean Watt of Newport Beach, who heads Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks, and Mary Fegraus of Laguna Canyon, and Judy Meyers of Silverado Canyon and a dozen others who voiced concerns. The board removed the "Letter of Intent" heading that could have made it a legal contract, and added a clause that the agreement was not binding. They instructed OC Parks director Mark Denny to show them the money on how much it would cost the county to assume ownership, and to report back with monthly updates.
Absent at the meeting was anyone from The Nature Conservancy, which is a full partner in the negotiations. Locally, the conservancy's biologist is highly regarded. Many are still puzzled about why Bren yanked control of the gift lands three years ago from the organization, and gave it to his own Irvine Ranch land trust.
Nationally, the Nature Conservancy has faced scrutiny in the past from Congress and others, amid reports that they were drilling for oil on the last scrap of habitat for North America's most endangered bird, and were selling donated land for hefty revenues.
Local conservationists said this week that they fear the conservancy's national staff will sign away highly restrictive federal conservation easements on the Irvine Co. gift land. That would allow the county to potentially substitute less restrictive deed transfers that could actually open up the preserved lands to more roads, oil and water drilling, power lines and other infrastructure.
They were gratified that the board slowed down the process somewhat, but said all the major issues remain.
"We're in wait and see mode now. We're always worried," said Jack Eidt of Wild Heritage Planners.
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Longtime Sierra Club volunteer Penny Elia of Laguna Beach agreed. "I still have a lot of questions. Let's see if they're sincere about wanting to do this correctly. Fighting multimillionaires is always challenging."
One conservationist said both Orange County and The Irvine Co. could benefit if Bren performed one more feat with a last slice of his land. Theresa Sears, an Orange Park Acres resident who is on the Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks board, believes 171 acres of the 20,000 acres have never been linked to any development mitigation, and have never been placed in a conservation easement. Sears argues that by signing over development rights forever, Bren could garner $76 million in tax deductions that he could convert to endowment funds to donate to the county along with the land, and another $36 million in tax
breaks for himself.
"Now that would be great deal, for everybody," she said after Tuesday's vote.
Janet Wilson is a veteran environmental journalist based in Southern California.