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Protesters gather in the Back Bay, calling for the removal of fence around county parkland

Dennis Bress of Newport Beach and Joni Nichols, of Newport Beach, protest in front of Buck Johns' home.
About 40 protesters gather at the fence site demonstrating against the proposed and failed sale of the property to a political donor, at the Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve. County officials nearly sold the land for $13,000 to a wealthy political donor, Buck Johns.
(James Carbone)

A small but vocal group of protesters gathered at Newport Beach’s Back Bay Thursday evening, brandishing signs and calling out for the removal of a fence surrounding county-owned land that was nearly sold to a local political donor last year — had it not been for the intervention of residents and Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley.

The issue centers on the 2021 proposed sale of a .32-acre parcel of parkland to Buck Johns, whose private property abuts the parcel in upper Newport Bay, for an estimated $13,000. While the deal ultimately didn’t go through, its process and aftermath have been the subject of scrutiny for one county grand jury and, most recently, the state Coastal Commission.

While the land remains owned by the county, a fence still stands around the parcel and, in backing down from removing the fence after Johns’ attorney sent a letter threatening legal action, county officials “inappropriately ceded [the parcel] to private use,” according to the Orange County grand jury report released in June.

Protesters put signs on a fence demonstrating against the proposed and failed sale.
Protesters put signs on a fence demonstrating against the proposed and failed sale of the property to a political donor at the Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve.
(James Carbone)

Thursday’s protesters carried signs that read “Give back our public park” and “Take down the fence” as they stood at the corner of Mesa and Upper Bay drives.

They were occasionally met with supportive honks and some people passing by on foot who took up a sign and joined the protest just outside of Johns’ home.

The group later marched to the fence at the rear of Johns’ property, tying signs to it with zip ties and evoking references to the Berlin Wall with one shouting, “Mr. Gorbachev — I mean, Buck, tear down this fence!”

The state Coastal Commission in August sent a letter to county officials saying the fence is in violation of the Coastal Act. In the letter, District Enforcement Officer Nicholas Tealer noted recommendations from the grand jury report and said the state agency supported removal of the fence and any other encroachments.

Tealer said the fence is considered development that is “inconsistent with public access policies of the Coastal Act and a violation of the Coastal Act and [local coastal plan’s] permitting requirements.”

Protesters march to the fence site demonstrating against the proposed and failed sale.
Protesters march to the fence site demonstrating against the proposed and failed sale of a property in Newport Beach’s Back Bay. County officials nearly sold the land for $13,000.
(James Carbone)

County spokeswoman Molly Nichelson declined to comment on the commission’s letter and Johns’ attorney Patrick Muñoz did not respond to a request for comment as of press deadline.

In a prepared statement issued by her office Aug. 23, Foley said the Coastal Commission’s letter “confirms that public land must remain for the public use — not private interests. At my first Board of Supervisors meeting in April 2021, the board considered the sale of public land for a mere $13,000. I immediately stopped the sale from moving forward in order to review the details and legalities. Then more than 1,000 residents presented signatures opposing the sale, and I removed the item.

“After the property owner sent a letter threatening litigation, the county refused to require him to take down his fence,” Foley continued. “I’ve consistently stood with the community in disagreement with this inaction, and I’m glad the Coastal Commission finally weighed in to confirm the unlawfulness of allowing his fence on public land.

“I look forward to the day when we see the fence removed and allow the community and wildlife to enjoy this beautiful land once again.”

Protesters put signs on a fence demonstrating against the sale.
Protesters put signs on a fence site demonstrating against the proposed sale of a .32-acre parcel on Thursday.
(James Carbone)

Dan Jamieson organized Thursday’s protest in coordination with Susan Skinner, with plans coming together over the last week.

Skinner said this is the first of a number of protests planned if the county doesn’t remove the fence.

“This is a situation where you have the public locked out of their property and they know it and they know it’s illegal to do so,” Skinner said. “The Coastal Commission has said take it down ... the grand jury has said take it down, and they are not willing to do so.”

Protesters march to the fence site demonstrating against the proposed sale.
Protesters march to the fence site demonstrating against the proposed sale of the .32-acre property. It remains owned by the county of Orange, but has been fenced off.
(James Carbone)

Skinner said she sees the refusal to take the fence down as political favoritism.

Dan Cohen of Newport Beach said he was out protesting Thursday evening in place of his mother, Jean Beek, an activist who helped save Newport Bay.

“The Irvine Co. was all set to develop the entire Back Bay. Her friends and she worked to stop the trade and you now see the result. Here we are 50 years later fighting the same fight we fought 50 years ago, which is public lands should remain in public hands,” Cohen said. “It’s strange, but here we are.”
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