A wealthy O.C. insider fenced off public land in Newport Beach’s back bay, sparking battle

A fence runs along a hillside toward a body of water.
A fenced-in area that includes property owned by a Republican donor as well as public land runs adjacent to the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve in Orange County.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Sloping down a dusty hill toward the Upper Newport Bay, where recreational enthusiasts share a path that runs alongside the marshy water, is a chain-link fence that separates public land from a sprawling bay-view property.

But the entirety of the fenced-in area doesn’t belong to homeowner Buck Johns, a wealthy energy executive and prominent Republican donor who sought to buy the plot from Orange County in 2019, a purchase that was ultimately denied.

Roughly a third of an acre is actually public parkland, and the space has become a hotbed of discourse in recent years as residents have decried blocked access amid allegations of political favoritism.

“I walk by every day on a six-mile hike. I think these are beautiful public parklands, and it’s very unfortunate that part of it is fenced off. If we let it happen here, it’s going to happen in other places,” said David Lumion, a Newport Beach resident who was among dozens protesting at the site last week.

A small but vocal group of about 40 protesters gathered outside Johns’ home on Thursday and marched down the path that led to his fence as Johns threw a midterm campaign party for Republican officials. A woman smoking a cigarette outside the GOP affair declined to comment on the fence issue.

“It’s a big red wave coming,” she said instead.

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Last month, the California Coastal Commission weighed in on the debate, saying the county needs to remove the fence so the public can access the space.

The parcel is in the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve, a 135-acre bluff-top park where thousands of birds, including peregrine falcons, flock.

Johns and Orange County are locked in a battle over the land, as the Voice of OC has reported. He tried to buy the plot in 2019, saying it used to belong to him. It’s unclear whether Johns had any plans for the parcel.

Former county Supervisor Michelle Steel’s staff spent more than a year steering Johns through the labyrinthine land-purchase process, helping him find an appraiser who set the value of the land at $13,000 — an amount some residents say is below market value.

During that time, the energy magnate donated $2,800 to Steel’s successful 2020 congressional campaign.

“We genuinely appreciate the fine cooperation from Supervisor Steel’s staff,” Johns wrote in one email.

A spokeswoman for Steel declined to comment on the interaction.

A diagram is overlaid on a photo of land and houses.
An Orange County Parks diagram of the 0.32-acre parcel of land that Buck Johns sought to purchase from the county.
(OC Parks)

The deal to sell the land, which was declared in public documents in 1990 to be for “public use and enjoyment,” sparked outrage among Orange County residents.

“This should be a level playing field, and the fact that Buck Johns is an influential Republican donor, I believe that bought him special privilege,” said Susan Skinner in an interview. The Orange County doctor helped secure 1,300 signatures last year for a petition opposing the sale.

The transaction never went through. By the time the final vote was before the county Board of Supervisors in April 2021, Steel had left to begin her congressional term. She was replaced on the board by Katrina Foley, a Democrat much less friendly to the plan.

At Foley’s first meeting in office, she tabled the vote. She later used her “district prerogative” to pull the sale from the board’s agenda.

“It’s crystal clear that it’s the county’s land. It’s never been [Johns’],” Foley told The Times in an interview. “He thinks if he just puts up a fence, it suddenly makes it his land, but that’s not how the public lands act works.”

Johns, who declined to comment on the fence flap, couldn’t even count on support from his neighbors. Jill Apperson, whose property abuts the fence, said she was disheartened when she learned of the planned sale.

“Especially during the pandemic, I saw so many people using this land and so many people wanting to be able to walk in the park,” she said. “People were like, ‘Wait, why would you sell this?’ ”

Following Skinner’s petition, an Orange County Grand Jury investigated procedures for the sale of public beaches, wildlife refuges, parks and other recreational areas and concluded that “had [Steel] remained in office, the sale of this land would most likely have gone through.”

It recommended in June that the county tear down the fence “to return the land to its natural (original) state” by the end of 2022.

But Johns’ attorneys threatened litigation if the fence was removed, and the county has left the barrier intact, saying the spit of land is not usable and “provides no apparent public park benefit.”

In August, the California Coastal Commission entered the fray and determined the fence violates the Coastal Act, which emphasizes the importance of the public being able to access California’s coast, among other regulations.

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“We’re seeing the chipping away of public open space everywhere down the coast... from sea-level rise eating away beaches on one side to private encroachment from the other side,” said Andrew Willis, the commission’s enforcement manager. “We really have to fight for every square foot of public open space.”

The commission warned Orange County in an Aug. 17 letter that it may be liable for violations if it does not remove the fence. The county’s Parks Department, Board of Supervisors and legal counsel are reviewing the missive, a spokeswoman for the county said.

The board plans to discuss the issue Tuesday in a closed session, according to a letter from the county counsel.

And Foley, undoubtedly, will keep arguing that the fence should come down.

“If it were gone, you could sit up there and meditate, look out on the beautiful view. That’s 10,000 square feet of land,” she said.