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Is Help on the Way for O.C. Parks?

Cutbacks helped the county recover from bankruptcy. Now, long-delayed improvements may get some of the money they need.

November 28, 2005|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

Stan Shook parked his car, paid a $3 parking fee and unloaded his two dogs at Peters Canyon Regional Park, a scenic 350-acre hiking sanctuary between Orange and Tustin.

Rather than well-lighted restroom buildings, playground equipment, concession areas and long hours, the public finds little more than portable toilets and gates that close at sunset. No frills here.

Shook, in town from the Bay Area for Thanksgiving, said he had nothing against paying fees, "but it looks as though they're trying to get the people who use the park to finance it."

"Why don't they pay for these things out of existing taxes, like sales taxes or something?"

A principal reason is Orange County's 1994 bankruptcy. It was the nation's largest such municipal meltdown, and the county is still paying off its debt. In some ways, it's hard to tell there was ever a fiscal disaster here, but nowhere are its effects more visible and continuing than in the county parks.

Historic buildings are deteriorating, restrooms need renovation, erosion from storms needs attention, and rotting roofs and old bridges are on a long and growing list of repairs.

Not far down the road from Peters Canyon at Irvine Regional Park, established in 1887, deteriorating restrooms sorely need work. Money finally arrived for new sewer lines after the park operated for more than a decade with an antiquated septic system.

"The bottom line is that some difficult decisions had to be made," said county Supervisor Tom Wilson, who has been on the board nine years. "Some of these decisions have turned out to be Draconian, and unfortunately, Harbors, Beaches and Parks was a victim."

Next month, the board will consider the parks' decade-long decline and what needs to be done to upgrade the recreation division to which Wilson referred.

On the county's wish list are dozens of small projects and some major expenditures, such as:

* $5 million at Sunset Aquatic Park in Seal Beach, to replace the Edinger Bridge, which provides access to Huntington Harbour.

* $880,000 at O'Neill Regional Park, needed to connect park plumbing to a domestic sewer system.

* $1.5 million in erosion and other repairs from 2005 storms throughout the park system.

The state of county parks was the topic of a sharply critical report in June by the Orange County Grand Jury that said the park system was underfunded and understaffed. The panel recommended that parks be given a higher priority, more money and departmental status. It is now part of the Resources and Development Management Department, a large bureaucracy whose operations include flood control and public works.

Already, nearly two dozen environmental and civic groups have called for a strategic study, endorsed giving parks departmental status and urged formation of a citizens review committee to prevent any "further degradation and dismantling" of the county's recreational treasures.

"We are dismayed at the willingness of elected leaders and staff to allow the slow undoing of the park system by refusing to commit a funding source" to pay for maintenance and growth, read a statement by the groups.

The statement was distributed by Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks, a nonprofit group formed four years ago to help protect the public's recreational properties.

Members of that group and grand jurors expressed concern about the county's decision to take money out of Harbors, Beaches and Parks to help reduce the county's bankruptcy debt. In the last decade, $62 million has been siphoned from that budget to cover bankruptcy debt, with $87 million more being diverted to help the state pay for public schools.

"The Board of Supervisors lost a commitment to the county's harbors, beaches and parks," said Jean Watt, a former Newport Beach mayor and member of the friends group. "Funding hasn't been a high priority with them."

Supervisors defended their post-bankruptcy decisions, saying they had little choice.

The park system has another challenge. In the 1960s, the planning mantra was to make developers cede open space for future parks and wildlife habitat as mitigation for laying concrete over former orange groves and wild land.

But the tight parks budget often meant nothing was done with land dedicated for parks and open space. And, with most development occurring in South County, that area has acquired more parkland compared with the north and central county.

Supervisors often haggle with one another at board meetings when park funds become available for projects.

Lou Correa and Chris Norby, who both represent the county's older areas, are usually at odds with supervisors such as Wilson, who represent more southern districts.

"I can commiserate with my colleagues," Wilson said. "But I can't take my parks that I have in my district" and move them north.

County officials have recommended spending $450,000 for a consultancy that will conduct a series of public meetings as part of an 18-month strategic review to help guide Harbors, Beaches and Parks management for decades to come.

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