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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Parks Fit Only for Mountain Goats

It’s hard to play baseball on a slope, but that hasn’t mattered much when you consider Orange County’s pathetic approach to securing parklands from developers. The Board of Supervisors has a regrettable record of allowing developers to set aside unusable land for parks, or to pay fees that are far less than needed to develop adequate recreation facilities.

While Orange County does have several large regional parks, many new developments have been short-changed on neighborhood parks. For example, recently incorporated Laguna Niguel has turned away dozens of Little League players for lack of practice fields.

The problem is that flat, well-located land is also best for building houses. And that’s how the developers who are well-connected politically in Orange County make their profits.

Under state law, cities and counties can require developers to donate parklands in return for permission to build houses. Orange County’s quota is 2.5 acres of parkland per 1,000 new residents. Twenty-six of the county’s 29 cities--all but Fountain Valley, Orange and Villa Park--have similar requirements. But county records show that, all too often, developers have been allowed to satisfy quotas with brushland or steep slopes, or by paying in-lieu fees far below what it costs to purchase parkland.

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Over the years, the county has raised in-lieu fees to respond to rising land costs, which in some areas have shot up to $1 million or more per acre. But over time, there has been a tragic and permanent loss of parklands.

Some recently incorporated cities are organizing to prevent further loss. They would do well to follow the model of Anaheim, which refuses to give park credit for land with a slope of 20% or more. There, city residents turn out in force when the City Council makes parkland decisions.

The Board of Supervisors should implement recommendations made by the county Environmental Management Agency to raise the park-dedication requirement to 3 acres per 1,000 residents, and force more developers to donate usable land instead of in-lieu fees.

Maybe things aren’t what they once were in San Diego, where a development firm was allowed to count back yards as part of its parks requirement. But irreversible decisions have been made in Orange County that have left communities without adequate, usable parks. This deplorable record must be corrected so that baseball and other recreational activities can be played on level fields.


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