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Irvine Co. Unveils 11,000-Acre Gift

Conservation: With lavish celebration, Chairman Donald Bren says land in Laguna Canyon, large swaths of Santa Ana foothills will never be developed.


Irvine Co. Chairman Donald L. Bren on Wednesday said he will set aside more than 11,000 additional acres of his ranch as permanent open space, including a key parcel in Laguna Canyon and a swath of the rugged Santa Ana Mountains.

The announcement was made at a press briefing followed by a company-hosted "celebration" at the Four Seasons hotel, where some 200 conservationists and public officials heard the news.

Added to existing parks and open space, Wednesday's land deal means that more than half of the Irvine Ranch--50,000 acres in all--will never be developed.

"My dream is that the Irvine Ranch will be known and celebrated as much for what is not developed here . . . as it is for the outstanding communities we've planned and built," Bren said.

The invitation-only event symbolized the power of the Irvine Co., one of California's largest private landowners and among the nation's biggest developers. Numerous state and local elected officials attended the lavish affair, even though few, if any, knew what was to be announced.

Yet by coming, they saw a rare sight: Bren, the 69-year-old billionaire who rarely appears in public.

Under the plan, the Irvine Co. will sign irrevocable conservation easements with the Nature Conservancy, which will manage the land for 10 years. The company promised that within that time, it would transfer title to various cities, the county and nonprofit groups.

In addition, Bren said he was adding $10 million to a $20-million fund established last year to support management and restoration of natural habitats on the land and to improve public access.

"To say that we're delighted would be an understatement," said Graham Chisholm, executive director of the Nature Conservancy of California. "It is a tremendously bold statement on the part of Donald Bren and the Irvine Co.

"These lands will not just remain undeveloped, but they will benefit from active stewardship."

Larry Thomas, Irvine Co. executive vice president, stressed that the "gift to the community" is not connected to any development proposal, including an expected acceleration of controversial plans to develop homes and a shopping district in East Orange.

"Nothing is being done as a quid pro quo," Thomas said.

Some environmentalists who were not invited to the announcement said the Irvine Co. should have involved the public in deciding what lands would be spared the bulldozer.

"Certainly someone--I don't know if it was the Nature Conservancy--had a large say" in picking the open space, said Chris Koontz, a USC student and Orange resident who had sued and settled with the company over a previous project. "But everyone else was left in the dark. We may not even be saving the best land."

Chisholm described the "North Ranch," which makes up the bulk of Wednesday's set aside, as being one of most ecologically important undeveloped stretches in Southern California.

The gift will link Fremont Canyon, which has been called the "Yosemite of Orange County," and parts of four other canyons to the Cleveland National Forest. The terrain is full of native plant and animal species, some endangered, and is an important wildlife corridor.

The 173 acres in Laguna Canyon have been sought by conservationists for more than a decade. Valued at more than $30 million 12 years ago, the parcel once accounted for half of the Irvine Co.'s development rights in the canyon, said Michael Pinto, founder and president of the Laguna Canyon Foundation.

"This for me is a very emotional moment," Pinto said. "Nobody ever dreamed that the company would come to us and say, 'It's yours,' and ask nothing in return. It is truly beyond belief."

Company executives said the deal evolved from a two-year review of the Irvine Ranch's master plan. Few--including Pinto and the Nature Conservancy--knew of its details until just before the announcement.

"Our vision has been to leave more than half of the Irvine Ranch in permanent open space," Bren said. "We will accomplish that with this historic action."

Bren's speech at the Four Seasons was punctuated by numerous rounds of raucous applause.

"Open space is freedom," Bren told the crowd.

Many who attended said they were stunned by the size of the set aside and said that it--even more than the huge sprawling developments Bren has built on the ranch--would be his legacy.

'A Milestone for Our Generation'

"I equal it to the Irvine Co. giving the city of Orange a national park. It's a bold move," said Orange City Councilman Mike Alvarez. "He's established this as a milestone for our generation."

Shirley Grindle, a longtime government activist, said Bren's action would preserve the character of some of Orange County's most prized places. Roads planned for the North Ranch will now probably not be built, and 1,200 acres in Silverado and Modjeska canyons that she said were slated for development will remain open.

"I was in tears for the first 20 minutes" of Bren's talk, Grindle said. "It far surpassed all my expectations. Since 1957, I've been driving down Santiago Canyon Road fearing the day they would develop it. Now I can die happy."

The first open space set aside on the ranch, 160-acre Irvine Regional Park, was donated by the heirs of founder James Irvine.

On Wednesday, Joan Irvine Smith, the founder's great-granddaughter, said Bren's action should set a precedent for large landowners nationwide.

After Bren spoke to the crowd, Smith walked up to him. "I couldn't be more pleased," she said. "I'm almost moved to tears. I'm so impressed by what you've done here. In all honesty, I could not have done it better myself."

Times staff writers Seema Mehta and Jean O. Pasco contributed to this report.

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