Billionaire’s Plans Put Community En Garde

Times Staff Writer

There is rich, and then there is Harbor Island rich.

Led by billionaire Donald Bren, a group of neighbors in the ultra-exclusive Newport Beach community has bought a $2.1-million house and torn it down, intending to build a guard tower at the entrance to their neighborhood.

The plans submitted to the city’s Public Works Department in late December call for a two-story, lighthouse-style guard tower, parking spaces, landscaping and a traffic turnaround for those uninvited or simply lost in the neighborhood.

The tower’s site is actually in Beacon Bay, an adjacent neighborhood connected to Harbor Island by a private bridge. The tower would sit next to the bridge, the only entrance to Harbor Island and its 32 homes. The bridge is currently gated and operated by a keypad.


“It’s sort of a culture shock for a lot of us, but it’s probably not going to change things hugely,” said Jean Watt, a former Newport Beach councilwoman and longtime resident of Harbor Island, one of seven residential islands around Newport Bay.

The guard tower would seem out of place among the tightly clustered houses in Beacon Bay and on Harbor Island, which have a laid-back feel, she said.

Watts added that she declined an invitation last year to join Bren and the other neighbors in the voluntary project at a price of $100,000 and a yearly fee of $6,000.

Bren recently finished building a new home on the island, where his late father, film producer Milton Bren, and his late stepmother, actress Claire Trevor, once lived. Donald Bren, his wife, Brigitte Muller, and their 2-year-old son previously lived on nearby Linda Isle, which is gated with a guardhouse entrance.

Bren, the intensely private owner of the Irvine Co., Orange County’s largest land developer, and the 38th-richest American, with a net worth of $5.7 billion according to Forbes magazine, declined to comment.

But a Bren associate said the effort to improve the entrance to Harbor Island had support from most of the island’s residents. The associate, who did not want to be named, said the idea was brought to Bren, 73, by another island resident, who asked him to help with the design and take it through the planning process.

The associate said other Harbor Island residents who have bought in include George Argyros, former U.S. ambassador to Spain, and James Edwards Jr., of the Edwards theater chain.

Reaction in Beacon Bay has been mixed, said John Hoover, a resident and past president of the local homeowners group, the Beacon Bay Community Assn.

Some residents were happy to see the older home on the site gone because they thought it was an eyesore. Others worried that the guard tower would change the area’s character, clog traffic and be used as a valet staging area for parties on the island.

“Initially, the overwhelming response in Beacon Bay was no,” Hoover said. But a growing number of residents have warmed to the idea as they learned more about it, he said.

The proposal still must be approved by the Beacon Bay homeowners association, because the tower site is inside the private community.

Also, the lot where the tower is proposed, like much of the Beacon Bay neighborhood, is public land. People own their homes, but lease the lots, which are filled-in tidelands, from the city.

The Newport Beach City Council, the state Coastal Commission and the California State Lands Commission, which has responsibility over tidelands, must also approve the project.

City officials said they had not reviewed the plans and were cautious with their comments.

Mayor Don Webb said he was reserving final judgment but thought the proposed turnaround might be useful for drivers who enter the area by mistake and must now make a tight U-turn in the narrow streets.

Councilman Steve Rosansky said: “I’d want to make sure it works well with the rest of the neighborhood.”

Several Harbor Island residents declined to comment, saying they didn’t want the publicity.

“Most of us who’ve lived here a long time like the ambience the way it is,” offered Watt, the former councilwoman. “We don’t need all that stuff.”