Santa Ana weighs the fate of a small bit of orange zest
This orchard used to be the stuff Orange County was made of.
Back in the heyday of the region’s citrus production, this five-acre parcel of orange trees in Santa Ana was no aberration. Indeed, at one point, the county boasted more than 67,000 acres of orange groves.
Pushed by urban development over the years, the county’s groves have been whittled down to scant plots of land, with perhaps fewer than 80 acres left.
The Sexlinger Orchard, which borders a park and sits across Santa Clara Avenue from a cemetery, has managed to remain untouched. But the orchard’s 250 trees, one of the last sizable groves in the city, could be gone by next year.
A real estate company wants to build 24 single-family homes on the land, but opponents with the Save Our Orchard Coalition say the project, currently in the review stage with the city, would destroy valuable property that could be preserved and used as an educational center and community garden.
The plot, purchased by the Sexlinger family in 1913, is one of the region’s oldest unaltered orange groves. A Craftsman bungalow, built by the family in 1914, still stands.
But some residents say the orchard has not been the same since Martha D. Sexlinger died five years ago. She was 98 and the last in the family line. Neighbors say she tended to the trees, clutching a watering hose well into her later years. The land went to Concordia University and Orange Lutheran High School after her death.
The orchard is fenced off and in some areas, barbed wire warns visitors to stay away. There isn’t anyone to tend to the oranges or the Craftsman bungalow, and the trees are deteriorating, supporters say.
Concordia University and Orange Lutheran High School did not return requests for comment.
Scott Allen, president of Tava Development Co. in Irvine, confirmed that his firm is in the process of purchasing the land and understands there’s an opposing point of view concerning the future of the orchard.
“We think we’re presenting a good proposal to the city,” he said, adding that it is too soon to speculate about specifics regarding the homes he might build there.
Barbara Wells, 50, grew up in a house next to the orchard and remembers seeing Martha and her sister, Esther, wearing canvas hats and thigh-high boots as they plowed through the rows of trees.
“It was beautifully kept,” she said. “They worked it always.”
The grove’s gift remains the sweet aroma of orange blossoms that permeates the neighborhood every spring.
“They are a remnant of what was,” said Jeannie Gillett, a volunteer with the coalition and a longtime Orange County resident. Like many who grew up in the area, she remembers summers spent picking fruit with her family.
Gillett and Nick Spain, another organizer with the coalition, argue that the land could be put to better use.
Spain became involved with trying to preserve the orchard in 2007 when another developer also envisioned homes there. But the following year, that developer went bankrupt, he said.
Spain, who was raised on a lima bean farm in Santa Ana, said he has watched agriculture disappear from the county and from society in general. Preserving the orchard would give future generations a chance to see real fruit growing on a tree, he said.
“Being able to do that in a setting in the city, there’s a connection that’s made there that you just can’t reproduce any other way,” he said. The group is planning a demonstration Saturday outside the orchard from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. More demonstrations are planned for August and September.
Fred Kottke, 70, who lives in the neighborhood, said when he moved here 40 years ago, he was attracted to nearby Portola Park, and of course, the orange grove.
Though his preference is to keep the grove, “it’s the money that counts,” he said.
Kottke’s wife, Angelika, said she used to help care for Martha Sexlinger and recalls the woman’s love of the orchard.
“She would have wanted it to stay as it was,” Angelika said.
Wells, who still remembers sneaking juicy oranges from the grove, said something needs to be done with the land because her home has been broken into multiple times though the kitchen window, which faces the orchard.
“I just want to see it put to use,” she said.
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