By Tina Richards

Donald Bren’s Irvine Company (TIC) has abandoned its plans to build 5,500 houses on approximately 2,500 acres in East Orange and Anaheim Hills, and has instead donated the land to Orange County for i and recriational use.

Proposed last June, the conveyance of land to the county was approved by the board of supervisors, Nov. 18, following months of negotiations needed to hash out the details.   

“This gift completes the preservation of the county’s northeastern canyons,” Supervisor Todd Spitzer said.  “It combines with The Irvine Company’s previous donation (20,000 acres in 2010) to create an unbroken stretch of preserved land from Irvine to Anaheim Hills, from Orange to the Cleveland National Forest.  These canyons, hills and meadows are a treasure.”  

Preserve and protect

“It’s easy for governments to opt for development over preservation,” Spitzer added, “we’re making an open space investment that will pay dividends for generations to come.”

The parcels encompass the 1,000-acre Mountain View development site in Gypsum Canyon, nearly 1,400 acres along the Santiago Canyon Road corridor and Irvine Lake, plus 16 acres adjacent to Irvine Regional Park.  An additional 15-acre parcel abutting the Mountain View tract and owned by RRM Properties was also donated to the county to coincide with the TIC gift.

Most of the land is being transferred to the county with conservation easements, meaning it will be preserved in perpetuity as natural open space.  The easements include allowances for recreation, and the property will be managed and maintained by OC Parks.  The land donation came with an $850,000 endowment that will help defray costs in the near term.  OC Parks estimates it will cost some $300,000 a year to manage the acreage, but also notes that it is within budget.

Back seat for bulldozers

What separates this 2,500-acre donation from previous Irvine Company land gifts is that this property was intended for 5,500 homes.  The proposed Mountain View tract at the intersection of Route 241 and the 91 freeway was slated for 2,500 units and the East Orange parcels for 3,000.  

While Donald Bren has conveyed almost half of his Irvine Ranch land holdings to the county for parks and open space (Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, Mason Regional Park, Weir Canyon, Limestone Canyon), cynics have long questioned his motives.  Bren’s 2010 gift of 20,000 acres in East Orange was considered by many to be simply a healthy tax deduction, gained from land that was unsuitable for development.  In this case, the decision to forego construction in favor of preservation suggests that Orange County’s largest developer may also be its largest land steward.  

“It’s as simple as it looks,” says company spokesman Michael Lyster.  “We’re master planners, not just for communities, but for open space.  This donation culminates 50 years of open space planning.  It brings preserved Irvine Ranch land to 55,000 acres or 60 percent of the total.”

Breath of fresh air

Not only will this latest land gift connect existing county parks and natural lands, it will save East Orange residents from the traffic, congestion, pollution and habitat destruction that the proposed development would have wrought.  The project was challenged by concerned residents as soon as it was introduced.  The Orange Hills Task Force, formed by locals and sanctioned by the Sierra Club, fought the development through the City of Orange’s entire planning process.  The proposed 4,000 new houses would have resulted in 40,000 additional car trips each day and required at least three traffic signals on Santiago Canyon road.  Noise levels would reach an ambient 69 decibels.

The sprawling housing tracts did not include schools or services.  An estimated 8,000 students would have been added to OUSD’s East Orange facilities and city taxpayers were expected to subsidize police, fire and sewer services for the first 20 years of the build out.  When the Orange City Council approved the project in 2005, the Orange Hills Task Force/Sierra Club filed a lawsuit.  The project opponents lost the original lawsuit as well as a subsequent appeal.  

Best of both worlds

“This land donation is really meaningful for all involved,” says Orange Hills Task Force President Eric Noble. “It shows that a small, inspired group, together with everyday households and a conscientious private company, can do what our politicians typically can’t -- pause the bulldozer long enough to look ahead at what’s about to be plowed under. With its power in Orange County, The Irvine Company could throttle forward and wipe it out.  The fact that it won’t speaks to the character of the company and its leadership in 2014.”  

The Irvine Company still has entitlements for 1,500 houses on land located near the intersection of Chapman and Jamboree in East Orange.  Several properties adjacent to the Gypsum Canyon site are owned by other developers who also have entitlements to build.

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