OC Officials Back Off on Reclaiming Public Back Bay Land from Newport Political Donor

When the County of Orange neared a deal to sell public park land in Upper Newport Bay to a wealthy political donor for just $13,000 — unbeknownst to much of the public — a group of residents seemingly put a stop to it in May through pages of petition signatures and civic action.

Elected county Supervisor Katrina Foley, who represents a district spanning the area, also used what’s called her “district prerogative” to unilaterally pull the deal, intending to take down the private fence line that’s been raised around the public property.

Now county officials are backing away from the idea of reclaiming the park land.

This is after Newport Beach resident Buck Johns — a wealthy Republican donor to county supervisors’ bids for local and national office — warned of legal action over his canceled purchase in a July 8 letter through his attorney, Patrick Munoz of the Rutan & Tucker law firm.

“We are writing to request that the County agree to cease any efforts to remove the fence in order to allow settlement discussions to occur,” wrote Munoz. “If the County does not agree to do so, our client has instructed us to move forward with litigation…”

The fence straddles the parcel, which is right below Johns’ home overlooking the scenic bay.

County staff in a July 14 response letter told Johns they would not take the fence down.

“The county will not be taking any action related to the Subject Property or the fence that currently encloses the property,” wrote the county’s Chief Real Estate Officer Thomas Miller.

That decision, according to Miller’s letter, came at the direction of county supervisors behind closed doors during their Tuesday meeting last week:

“County staff has had the opportunity to discuss the Subject Property with the Board of Supervisors and has received direction with regard to this matter.”

County spokesperson Molly Nichelson, asked how this closed-session discussion was noticed to the public on Tuesday, pointed to item SCS6 on Tuesday’s supervisors meeting agenda.

That item appears under the supplemental and revised version of the meeting’s agenda, and only references the discussion as a conference with legal counsel over “anticipated litigation.”

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