Conservationists Now Take Positive View of County Accepting Irvine Co. Land Gift

Janet Wilson blogged here in September and did whatever it is they call it when something that had been blogged later appears in print here in November about Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren's “gift” to Orange County of 20,000 acres of rugged wild lands at the county's eastern edge.

At first leery of the Limestone Canyon donation, local conservationists warmed up to the gift by the time county supervisors voted 5-0 today to officially accept it.

Now all wondering eyes shift to county parks.

“I think the hearing went well,” Theresa Sears, an Orange Park Acres residents who belongs to the group Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks (FHBP) tells the Weekly. “It was a good presentation by OC Parks Director Mark Denny. Well balanced.”

Normally, conservation groups would be tickled green to have some of the last remaining land relatively untouched by humans shifting from private to public hands. But as Wilson's reporting showed, they had raised fears that county parks did not understand the magnitude of the gift nor did it have the resources to manage it.

And while Bren has built a solid reputation in the business press in recent years for preparing to leave behind a lasting natural legacy, past Irvine Co. land donations that really were too bad to be good are still fresh in people's minds. Orange County's leading land baron has had a knack for reaping accolades, huge tax breaks and habitat-destroying development side deals after “giving” the public sheer cliffs and other land expensive to manage and impossible to build on.

Meanwhile, we here in the non-business press have lost counts how many times the Irvine Co. has sent out press releases over the years trumpeting Bren's gift of the same land, including these same 20,000 acres east of Irvine. Set it to music already, Donny.

However, as county parks, the Irvine Co., the nonprofit The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and other groups have hashed things out over the past 10 months, all have come to trust one another's motives and faith in public stewardship of the land.

“TNC will provide important independent oversight–another set of eyes,” Sears said. “That brings us a lot of comfort.”

Bren originally wanted his chosen nonprofit, the Irvine Ranch Conservancy, to oversee the land and control easements that would have allowed some development and resources-extracting wiggle room.

That has since disappeared, and besides Sears, FHBP founder Jean Watt and the Sierra Club's Penny Elia–who had all counseled slowing down the county's acceptance of the land last fall so that more scrutiny could be given to the deal and the county's ability to handle it–now are solidly behind it.

That, Sears conceded, still required a “leap of faith.”

“Will the county do this land justice? Will they be good long-term stewards?” she asked rhetorically. “Much of those answers will be dependent on groups working together and on the leadership and guidance given by the Board of Supervisors.”

In the meantime, enjoy the view.

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