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Orange County

Irvine Co. Land Plan: Give and Take

Growth: At a party next week, Bren is expected to set aside open space. Building proposals would follow.

November 22, 2001|EVAN HALPER and JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Several thousand acres of Irvine Co. land would be preserved as permanent open space under a plan expected to be announced next week at a gathering of government officials and environmentalists.

The dedications appear to be part of a one-two punch, to be followed by an aggressive push by the company to move forward with its plans for thousands of homes in East Orange.

The company, which is one of the largest private landowners in California and among the nation's biggest developers, has about 50,000 undeveloped acres on Irvine Ranch. Development plans have been filed on all but 13,000 of those acres.

Sources close to the company say the announcement will come at a cocktail party hosted by Irvine Co. owner Donald Bren for dozens of local politicians and conservationists. The agenda for the reception is secret, as is the guest list. Government officials who received invitations were merely told that major announcements affecting the future of their communities would be made.

"The event involves a significant open-space announcement," said company spokesman Larry Thomas. "I don't want to go into any further specifics. We're going to announce this a different way."

Those familiar with the plans, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the land--at least 7,000 acres--will be put in the stewardship of the Nature Conservancy and possibly other conservation organizations.

Environmentalists are giving the news mixed reviews. Many say they are delighted but others criticize the company for refusing to negotiate over what land should be saved.

The new preserves would likely include rugged Fremont Canyon and Blind Canyon in north Orange County and a large addition to the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. Both areas are connected to extensive wildlife corridors and are home to many endangered plant and animal species.

Officials at the Nature Conservancy and the Laguna Canyon Foundation, which manages the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, declined to comment.

County parks officials have referred to Fremont Canyon--which in the past was considered a possible county jail site--as the "Yosemite of Orange County." Fremont abuts Coal Canyon, a mountain lion corridor recently purchased by the state as open space with $40 million in public and private funds. Blind Canyon is also in that area.

The land expected to be added to the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park includes a 175-acre parcel that foundation officials have been working to preserve for years.

The land was approved for 1,500 homes before the park existed. Now the 175 acres are connected to 17,000 acres of preserve land, which includes Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park and Crystal Cove State Park. The parcel is part of an envisioned wildlife corridor that would extend to the Cleveland National Forest.

Even as Irvine Co. officials finalized the details, they were arranging meetings for early next month with Orange City Council members; city officials say the company will outline plans to build up to 11,000 homes and a shopping district in East Orange.

The company was granted preliminary approval for the 11,000 homes under a plan adopted by Orange in 1989. But city officials now say the open space dedications in that area will likely reduce the size of the development.

"We're probably going to have an idea what they have in mind for East Orange after Wednesday's event," said Councilman Michael Alvarez. "One of their vice presidents is setting up meetings with individual council members. . . . He told us he wants to discuss their development plans."

Alvarez and other Orange City Council members say they have no idea what kinds of homes and how many of them the company is proposing. Council members will join Irvine Co. officials on a tour of the Limestone Canyon area in East Orange next month.

"They haven't told us why they want to bring us there," Alvarez said. "They are being very tight-lipped about everything."

The guest list for Wednesday's reception includes every city council member from Orange, Laguna Beach, Tustin and Anaheim, as well as council members from other cities, several elected and appointed county officials and a number of conservationists who have worked with the company on preservation plans.

Some of the elected officials on the guest list expressed concern the event could violate open meeting laws. Neither the public nor the press will be allowed.

"This has me a little worried," Alvarez said. "If they start pushing the envelope, I'm stepping out."

Uninvited environmentalists, including many members of the Sierra Club, say the company chose the parcels to preserve in secret, without input from a diverse group of conservationists. They also warn that the company may be setting aside land that was never suitable for development.

"I think they are getting undue credit for land they wouldn't be able to build on," said Chris Koontz, a USC sophomore and lifelong Orange resident who successfully sued the Irvine Co. over building on a several-hundred-acre parcel in East Orange.

Yet some of the development community's loudest opponents are optimistic.

"The rumors I am hearing are that they are cooking up something really good," said Dan Silver, coordinator of the Endangered Habitats League in Los Angeles. "People who have seen this are telling me, 'You are going to like what you see.' "

*

Times staff writer Jean O. Pasco contributed to this report.

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