The Irvine Co., Orange County's largest landowner, will turn over more than 2,000 acres of wild land to the county's park system, the biggest one-time addition to parkland in the county's history.
The action, fulfilling earlier development agreements made by the Irvine Co., will bolster the rugged Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and create a contiguous 17,000-acre crescent of public parkland from the former Aliso Pier to Newport Coast Drive.
"It's wonderful news," said Michael Pinto, president and founder of the Laguna Canyon Foundation. "These additional acres are a very important addition."
The new acreage features scenic ridgelines, deep canyons with sycamores, oak groves and plenty of coastal sage scrub and natural grasses. The land is home to coyotes, bobcats, rabbits, deer, mountain lions, birds of prey and the California gnatcatcher, an endangered songbird.
The coast wilderness park, although cleaved by Laguna Canyon Road and the San Joaquin Hills tollway, provides the link between Crystal Cove State Park, Aliso & Woods Canyons Regional Park, and the Irvine Co. Open Space Reserve.
Park use will include mountain biking, hiking and horseback riding. The county Board of Supervisors is scheduled to approve the land transfer at its June 29 meeting.
The company actually agreed to donate the land more than a decade ago; the acreage is part of a 1988 "set-aside" agreement between the developer and the county that gave the Irvine Co. the go-ahead to build the 2,600-home Newport Coast project.
"It has been the Irvine Co.'s plan for nearly 20 years to set aside 75% of the Newport Coast as permanent open space and to transfer ownership of this valuable wildlife habitat to the people of Orange County," said Gary Hunt, Irvine Co. executive vice president. "This dedication of more than 2,000 acres will fill in several large pieces in the county's open space puzzle years ahead of schedule."
Most of the land was scheduled to be turned over to the county this year, but about 700 acres that had been scheduled for future dedication are included as "an early gift," Hunt said.
The dedication completes a four-part turnover by the developer. The first piece, about 600 acres, is already part of the existing coast wilderness park.
The latest additions are 1,434 acres near Laguna Canyon Road and Coast Highway, 385 acres along Los Trancos Canyon east of Newport Coast Drive, and 251 acres along Buck Gully south of San Joaquin Hills Road.
The additional parkland represents some of the most scenic, and expensive, in Orange County. Half-acre home sites above Los Trancos are selling for about $1 million.
"The view along the coast is just spectacular," said Tim Miller, county Harbors, Beaches and Parks Division manager. "You can see clear to Catalina Island and also to San Clemente Island."
Pinto and other environmentalists who live in Laguna Beach and other South County coastal cities called the added acreage invaluable for creating a place where urban progress is kept at bay.
"When you drive into the canyon from a highly urban area near the [San Diego] Freeway and head down Laguna Canyon Drive, you're coming into our decompression chamber," Pinto said. "Because that's what it is. You're driving from the hustle and bustle to this calm."
Rip Delisanti, camping and climbing coordinator for the REI outdoors equipment store in Santa Ana, said the land "was a phenomenal gift."
"This gives us a lot of open space," he said. "There has been a big fear, especially in the mountain biking community, that as they continue to develop [the Newport Coast] it will take up open space and increase traffic along [Coast Highway], making it dangerous for bikers."
Miller said the coastal wilderness park was part of the 37,000 acres included in the 1996 Natural Community Conservation Plan, a federal effort to balance growth with the federal Endangered Species Act.