Forced to comply with a new state law, the Garden Grove City Council this week declared the 102-acre Willowick Golf Course as “surplus land,” readying it for a sale or lease and possible development.
The council’s vote Tuesday night means that the site, which sits in Santa Ana but is owned by the city of Garden Grove, must first be made available to public agencies and others interested in acquiring it for affordable housing, parks and open space.
Previously, city officials hoped the land would be developed in a way that generates new revenue. But some residents objected, saying they want to see the land benefit local residents and not become the site of luxury apartments or a private stadium.
At the meeting Tuesday, members of a residents’ coalition fighting to make the land more open and available for affordable housing and parks said they are pleased that the property is now declared surplus land.
But they also criticized city officials’ motives and questioned their commitment to comply with the law in a transparent and inclusive manner.
They pointed to a paragraph in the resolution adopted Tuesday night that describes Willowick “to be a city asset held for the purposes of investment and revenue generation to support city services.” They also noted a second paragraph that states the city must comply with the law “in order to pursue new uses for Willowick, including the possible disposition through a sale or preferably a lease.”
Cynthia Guerra, a member of the Rise Up Willowick Coalition, said such language indicates city officials are “going to do the minimum” necessary to comply with the law.
“They have no intention to engage in good faith negotiations,” Guerra said Wednesday.
The city could eventually end up building what it wants and leasing or selling it to a tax generating developer. But that could happen if no agreement is reached for parks or affordable housing with an interested party, such as a housing sponsor, a park authority or a school district.
On Tuesday, the Garden Grove council voted unanimously, without discussion, to adopt a resolution declaring Willowick surplus land. City officials did not reply Wednesday to requests they address concerns expressed by members of the Willowick Rise Up Coalition.
Last year, city officials appeared to try to get around a new law before it kicked in Jan. 1: a new version of the Surplus Land Act law, which requires local agencies to offer public lands for affordable housing and open spaces before selling or leasing. The city was ready to vote on a development deal but provided few details of what the project would eventually look like. It called for a company called MWillock Land to buy up to 30 acres and lease the rest to other developers.
That deal frustrated Rise Up members from Santa Ana and Garden Grove, who complained that the city acted without input from the community and with little transparency.
In December, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge stopped the city’s plan to offer a long-term lease to MWillowick Land, which is affiliated with the developer of the Great Wolf Lodge, a Garden Grove hotel with an indoor water park. A local non-profit known as OCCORD, Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, had sued both Garden Grove and Santa Ana, alleging the cities violated the state’s Surplus Land Act.
In 2018, Garden Grove and Santa Ana worked together to hold community workshops and came up with three “Envision Willowick” concepts for the land: a new stadium, a “district” with a large corporate tenant and a cultural or educational center, or either a tech or agriculture-focused campus. (The cities last year received 12 proposals for the land, but neither city has made those proposals available to the public.)
Meanwhile, the court order last December that stopped Garden Grove from moving ahead with its long-term lease plan remains in effect. A trial has not yet been held to determine whether it will become permanent.
Staff writer Sean Emery contributed to this report.
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