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Force of Nature

Heiress Joan Irvine Smith Is Emerging as an Advocate for Environmental 'Balance'--an Unusual Role for Someone Whose Family Helped Pave Paradise

June 09, 2002|RICHARD E. CHEVERTON AND LAURA SAARI

It was a coming out, of sorts, although few of the 600 people crowded into the Corona del Mar elementary school auditorium sensed it on that fateful evening in mid-January 2001. To the seasoned (and probably cynical) observer, it was just another public hearing on yet another Orange County development plan. The "not-in-my-backyard" folks would protest; the environmentalists would squawk; then the public servants would depart and, soon thereafter, the bulldozers would rumble again.

The project in question was a deal struck quietly during the Wilson administration's waning days to demolish the old termite-riddled beach cottages in Crystal Cove State Park, to be replaced by new cottages that would rent for $375 a night. The developer, Michael Freed, had impeccable environmental chops--he had created the Post Ranch resort in Big Sur, and if you could build there, well, you had to figure you could build just about anywhere.

But Freed and his political allies had made a mistake, although they would have needed an exquisitely subtle understanding of Orange County history to anticipate it. They had decided to build in the childhood playground of one of the county's most eccentric, irascible, implacable and energetic citizens, one of the last Orange Countians who had actually lived the area's fabled, bucolic, undeveloped past--an era of immense land-holdings lorded over by bigger-than-life ranching dynasties; the Orange County of oranges, for heaven's sake; of cattle and country roads and unspoiled beaches.

Michael Freed hadn't figured on crossing Joan Irvine Smith.

And now, here she was, standing to voice her displeasure at what this interloper was proposing to do to Crystal Cove as the crowd thundered, "Joan, Joan, Joan." Somehow, in the hullabaloo, Freed never got a chance to speak. By the end of the evening, it was clear that two things had happened:

Michael Freed's resort was dead as a doornail.

And Joan Irvine Smith was back where she has been, on and off, for four tumultuous decades: in the headlines and in the thick of battle.

Now the stakes in another ongoing development battle have sharply escalated both for Smith and those who seem certain to cross paths, if not swords, with her. She predicts, "There's going to be a real battle down here with respect to development in the south part of the county." At issue is a plan developed by the Rancho Mission Viejo Co. that would put 14,000 houses on a prime cut of land on the historic O'Neill Ranch, a spread not quite as big as her great-grandfather's 120,000 acres right next door and a few miles up the serpentine Ortega Highway from Smith's own horsy estate in San Juan Capistrano.

"These people are good, close friends of mine," she says. "I'm a tenant of theirs. I've told Tony [Moiso, who runs the company that owns and manages the O'Neill Ranch] on more than one occasion--you've got to go in and study this thing and have a balance. You've got to work with these environmental communities, because they'll tie you up in court a long time."

The lady should know: she spent more than 30 years in court with the various overlords of her family's Irvine Ranch. But now, fresh from the Crystal Cove coup, Smith sees herself as a player who can bring these intractable, warring enemies to the table, bang some sense into their heads. "I think we're going to change the world here," she says, with not a hint of doubt. "We're going to have a balance between the environmental community and the development community. We're going to change everything."

Rebecca Schoenkopf, one of the OC Weekly's acid-tongued columnists, sees it differently, as do others around the county. "That's a little bit bizarre coming from an Irvine," Schoenkopf says. "That's where she got all of her money, isn't it? Didn't her family pave over all of Orange County? Isn't that pretty much how it happened?"

As with all things Irvine, it is--and, then again, it isn't.

To understand Joan Irvine Smith--to understand Orange County--you need to grasp the immensity, the pervasiveness of the original Irvine Ranch, which encompassed more than 185 square miles of the county and reached 22 miles inland from Newport Beach to the edge of the Cleveland National Forest. Consider how Los Angeles might be a very different place if one man had owned fully a quarter of its surface area--and if, over the years, through all the twists and turns of ownership, the land was still owned by one man. It might make the entire West Side of the city look like--well, like Irvine. Or the Newport Coast, where the current owner's fancy for Italian Renaissance hill towns has created a cleaned-up Urbino-on-the-Pacific.

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