Mayor Moonbeam, Meet Donald Bren

Photo by Jack GouldThe longest-running feud in Orange County has pitted the insatiable Irvine Co. and its associates against Larry Agran, the city of Irvine's veteran progressive politician. Since the 1980s, the developers have called Agran “onerous . . . disingenuous . . . lunarly . . . evil.” They have labeled him “Mayor Moonbeam,” the unscrupulous leader of a “no-growth, fringe group of political liberals.” They've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to prop up Agran opponents and fund vicious personal attacks on Agran during local elections. Accustomed to buying their way through most politicians, the developers even coined a contemptuous term to describe Agran and his spirited supporters: Agranistas.

Agran is no verbal pacifist, either. He has portrayed the developers as “thugs” who should be “held accountable for their out-and-out lies.” With little more than a small army of supporters and raw strategic intelligence, Agran has employed hardball tactics to slow commercial and residential development and gain impressive concessions for local taxpayers. In 1989, the Los Angeles Times described the intense Agran-Irvine Co. battle as “David vs. Goliath.” Agran openly worried that developers might succeed in “grinding us down” with their abundance of corporate money, lawyers and behind-the-scenes access to elected officials. He once called his opponents' reliance on developer contributions “alarming.”

But times have changed. Without the drama of a public climax, the county's bitterest, most high-stakes feud is over—somehow, long over. Ask Agran about the Irvine Co. or Irvine Co. executives about Agran nowadays, and you'll hear nothing but sweet honeymoon praise. The two have even joined forces to produce a public-relations video featuring a smiling Agran touting, of all things, the Irvine Co.'s corporate generosity.

When urged to explain their startling peace treaty, both sides say—ironically—that the relationship merely “matured.” Monetary rewards apparently come with maturity. Though once repugnant to Agran, Irvine Co.-related contributions now pour freely into his campaign coffers. According to the most recent campaign-disclosure reports filed by Agran in February, as much as 65 percent of the money he raised in the last six months of 2001—more than $25,000—came from his old nemesis: wealthy Newport Beach real-estate developers and their associates.

Agran's campaign-finance reports are beginning to look like those of such adamantly pro-development supervisors as Jim Silva and Chuck Smith. Agran's latest filing is a Who's Who of pro-El Toro Airport, Republican developers. The notables (most of whom gave the maximum allowable contribution, $320) include:

•Gary Hunt, longtime chief lobbyist for the Irvine Co. and now a Newport Beach developer consultant;

•Cary Bren, president of California Pacific Homes and son of Irvine Co. billionaire owner Donald Bren, the most prolific builder in county history;

•William H. Lane, head of Orange County development for Dallas-based Trammel Crow Co., one of the world's largest private developer companies and a major fund-raiser for conservative causes;

•Donald Koll, outspoken anti-environmentalist who's also anti-progressive causes and chairman of Newport Beach-based Koll Development Co.;

•William Popejoy, a Newport Beach investor and ex-county CEO with close ties to the Irvine Co. and Donald Koll;

•J. Harold Street, a Newport Beach-based developer and former executive with Koll Development;

•John C. Flanigan, director of George H.W. Bush's 1992 presidential campaign in California and a former Irvine Co. vice president;

•William H. McFarland, Newport Beach resident and former president of Irvine Communities Development, an arm of the Irvine Co.;

•Chris Gibbs, CEO of PLC Land Co. in Newport Beach;

•Randy Smith, a veteran pro-developer lobbyist involved in a 1990s contribution scandal with disgraced former Supervisor Don Roth;

•Frank “Big Frank” Michelena, a legendary pro-developer lobbyist also involved in the Roth scandal;

•LSA Associates, a firm connected to former Irvine Co. executive Tom Nielson;

•Dwight W. Spiers, a Newport Beach real-estate developer and past contributor to Agran opponent Sally Anne Sheridan;

•Michael Stockstill, a longtime pro-development consultant who has designed PR strategies for the county's private toll-road system and served as an Irvine Co. spokesman;

•The Diamond Group, owned in part by Irvine Co. lobbyist Dan Young; and

•John P. Erskine, outspoken advocate of developer interests and past president of the Orange County Building Industry Association.

During the same period, Agran also accepted contributions from Shea Homes, a major West Coast developer; Brookfield Home Southland Inc. of Costa Mesa; Terra-Cal Construction Inc., one of California's largest developers; Sares-Regis Group, a massive Irvine-based commercial and residential developer; Madison Marquette Realty Services, the Minnesota-based manager of the Irvine Co.'s shopping centers; the Keith Cos., a Costa Mesa-based developer; Standard Pacific of Orange County, an Irvine-based developer; WL Homes, a division of John Laing Homes of Newport Beach; and six separate contributions from lawyers and developer lobbyists at Nossaman, Guthner, Elliot N Knox.

Documents show that the effort by the county's largest developers to fund Agran's upcoming re-election campaign started in the summer of 2001, just after Agran's “Great Park” initiative—Measure W—was announced as an option to an international airport at El Toro. It was also a time when the city of Irvine, under Agran's control with a three-person council majority, was considering the Irvine Co.'s plans for massive development off the San Diego Freeway and Highway 133, the previously undisturbed gateway to Laguna Beach. The company's desires for the location, called Planning Area 17, sailed through Irvine City Hall without any fight—and at the same time the contributions arrived.

But there's a bigger land-development target on the horizon. Agran hopes to persuade U.S. Navy officials to give his city the job of planning the conversion of the department's abandoned El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

The prospect of Agran driving the El Toro handover may explain an Aug. 22, 2001, Irvine Co. memo. Addressed to employees as well as companies that rely on the developer for survival, company vice presidents Joe Davis and Dan Young solicited support for Agran and fellow Democrat Chris Mears, an Agran ally on the council.

The fund-raising letter did not offer an explanation for the company's new relationships. But their corporate motto might: “Good planning goes a long way.”

Agran's obvious coziness with past enemies might horrify his old supporters. A Weekly review of campaign-disclosure reports from the 1980s shows that the mayor sought funding mostly from liberals, moderate Republicans and slow-growth advocates. A page from one of Agran's 1987 campaign-finance reports illustrates the point: when he was the undisputed leader of Orange County's slow-growth movement, the occupations of his contributors were journalist, housewife, doctor, retired, union member, lawyer, county employee, architect, student and peace activist.

In a recent interview with the Weekly, Agran said he was frustrated that “a few people” don't trust him anymore. But he declined to discuss in detail his behind-the-scenes negotiations with Irvine Co. executives, especially over the future of El Toro. He was willing to say, however, that he believes his current political objectives are not necessarily at odds with the interests of the county's most powerful real-estate developer.

Longtime Agran critic Christina Shea, herself a former Irvine mayor, says voters worried about the side effects of developer-driven commercial and residential projects—traffic congestion, pollution, crowded schools and quality of life—should be cautious heading to Election Day in November.

“The media keeps portraying Larry as an environmental hero against the big, bad developers, but it's not true,” said Shea. “He's giving them what they want. That is why they've decided to back him. It's not a mystery.”

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