Collective Fight Could Expand Orange County’s Open Space Landscape

A fight to open more of Orange County’s landscape to the public is gaining regional momentum, which — if successful — could mean residents over the next set of years will have more open space to stretch their legs, run around in and explore. 

Since the start of this year, different public land movements across the county have either sprung into action or made unprecedented progress, seeking to preserve and expand Orange County’s stretches of park land.

Two of these fights are taking place in some of the most scenic, and wealthy, areas of Orange County’s central coast — Banning Ranch and Upper Newport Bay. 

Meanwhile, if the effort succeeds, one of the region’s largest urban area state parks near north Orange County, located in Chino Hills, could become even larger.

Much of the recent activity comes largely due to an unprecedented amount of philanthropic efforts and never-before-seen state grants, says Paolo Perrone, a project manager for The Trust for Public Land, an open space nonprofit. 

“I’ve been doing this work for 15 years and I’ve never felt as much momentum as now,” Perrone said, taking in the commanding vistas of bluffs and wetlands in Banning Ranch — a piece of Newport Beach long targeted for development — during a tour of the area.

Studies have found that areas with more open space supply can have positive effects on a community’s mental health and public safety settings. 

Meanwhile, less affluent areas of North and Central Orange County still face steep disadvantages through park shortages and green space deficits.

[Read: OC Park History Is a Tale of Two Counties]

In those areas, there’s an existing and ongoing fight by groups like Rise Up Willowick, which has for two years led the charge to conserve open space at the Willowick Golf Course between Santa Ana and Garden Grove for its surrounding, less affluent neighborhoods. 

[Read: Willowick: One Neighborhood At Center of Reshaping Battle for Area’s Last Open Space]

Santa Anita handball courts on Feb. 2, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Most recently, Rise Up Willowick organizers and other residents surrounding Willowick turned out to the Garden Grove City Council’s most recent, July 27 meeting to restate their demands that the golf course first be prioritized for open space and affordable housing.