CELEBRATE! : ORANGE COUNTY’S FIRST 100 YEARS : FORGING AN IDENTITY : Thanks for the Memories
Names and faces in the news come and go. Often, the people who help shape the quality of our lives are almost--but not quite--forgotten once their tasks are completed and they move on. Sometimes, their names come up and we wonder where they are and what they are doing.
Ken Sampson doesn’t have to look far for evidence of his greatest accomplishment as director of the county Harbors, Beaches and Parks District. A bluff-top park that bears his name offers an expansive view of Dana Point Harbor, which was conceived, financed, engineered and constructed under his direction.
From the home he built 35 years ago on a Newport Harbor channel, Sampson (above, with wife Audrey) recalls a fulfilling career pursued at a time when project development was smoother and roadblocks were fewer. Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, he says, land was more easily obtained and government business was more intimate.
Sampson, now 82, retired in 1975 after 45 years of government service. He worked for 19 years in Los Angeles County, where he was a land-use engineer for the regional planning commission and chief deputy to a Los Angeles county supervisor whose district included the Los Angeles coastline. In 1954, he became Orange County’s assistant planning director. Three years later, he was named director of the newly expanded harbor district, a position he would hold for 21 years.
Among his responsibilities was coordinating the development of parks under the Regional Parks Master Plan of 1965. In 10 years, the number of regional parks in the county jumped from two--Irvine and O’Neill--to 12, an increase of 7,650 acres.
In 1978, a tiny park overlooking Dana Point Harbor was named the Ken Sampson Overview by the Board of Supervisors. Sampson is delighted with the recognition--and the success of the 2,500-slip harbor, which was established in phases beginning in 1971.
Its success, he says, is owed largely to the era in which it was created. “Some of the projects we did would be nearly impossible to do today.” He points to urban encroachment, higher land values, environmental constraints and increased government bureaucracy.
“I liked the job. It was enjoyable, challenging, creative. I knew the ropes, how to get the money and how to acquire the land. I occupied the position at a time when there was great interest. We couldn’t do it now because of urbanization.
“The attitude of the public has changed, there is a ‘do not disturb the land’ attitude because there has been so much urban development. Some no-growthers don’t want developed parks; they want to keep greenbelts.”
He says there were environmental constraints in his day, but there are more agencies to answer to now--"other layers of government, such as the California Coastal Commission.” And the Harbors, Beaches and Parks District has been absorbed by a larger entity, the Environmental Management Agency.
“It was more intimate then. We had direct contact with the supervisors. We had more liberty. I was lucky . . . . It is just harder now. Now there is more bureaucracy, more people to get approval from.”
Sampson has enjoyed traveling, watercolor painting and clock making in the years since his retirement. He gave up consulting work after his first minor stroke last year and is now undergoing physical therapy to recover from a second stroke he had in February.
He is vice president of the Orange County Marine Studies Institute and is pleased to see children learning about sea life. As a boy living in the city of Orange--he attended high school and college in Los Angeles--he enjoyed marine life on family visits to a Huntington Beach cabin.
Sampson fondly remembers the county when “homesteads were surrounded by 10 acres” and is still surprised at the rate of population growth.
“I’m not a no-growther, but I don’t like to see extreme densities. I don’t think anyone foresaw this kind of rapid growth.”