“It is not often that a non-profit organization has completed its mission and is able to step into the history books,” said the Friends’ founding president, Fern Pirkle, of Newport Beach.
With July’s opening of the El Moro campground at Crystal Cove State Park and the Friends’ final public-access goal realized, its board voted in June to close up shop, the organization announced this week.
From the outset, the Friends’ weighed in on a seemingly lopsided battle: a newly transplanted Newport Beach realtor audaciously challenged the master plan mapped out by Don Bren, one of the nation’s richest men and one of the county’s largest landowners.
“People told me I was crazy to think I could take on the Irvine Company,” said Pirkle, now 84. “We fooled them all.”
The Friends’ advocacy ranged from state and federal lobbying to the filing of multiple lawsuits pro bono by Shute, Mihaly and Weinberger, San Francisco lawyers specializing in land use law. Though their litigation didn’t succeed in court, the threat of development delays extracted concessions of open space from the developer, which was eager to proceed.
Along the way, the advocates successfully challenged the density of development permissible along what was then called the Irvine Coast, limiting home building to 2,600 units, eliminating high-rise office towers and preserving 79 percent of the area as open space and wildlife habitat. When initially approved in 1976 by the Board of Supervisors, the Irvine Company’s plans included multiple resort hotels and 12,000 homes for 38,000 people.
“The lowest point was at the beginning,” said Pirkle, a native of Hollywood, who taught elementary school after graduating from UCLA. She settled in Newport Beach in 1970 with a former husband, a doctor recruited to the newly opened UC Irvine Medical Center.
Within a month, she got involved in a successful protest led by Frank and Frances Robinson to foil Irvine Company plans for a hotel on an island in the Back Bay. “That’s what got me active,” Pirkle said. “They pumped me up.”
Among the Friends’ biggest successes was championing the 1981 purchase of 2,807 acres of the Irvine Coast for $32.5 million to become Crystal Cove State Park, the most expensive in state history.
In recent years, the battleground shifted to the intransigent tenants of the El Morro Village mobile home park. They contributed to former Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, who proposed a bill to extend tenant leases another 30 years. “We were adamant those tenants move out,” said Friends’ board member Ed Merrilees, of Laguna Beach.
Friends’ also battled the perception that the campground intended to supplant mobile homes would be a haven for unsavory people. “We documented that the state campground next to a grade school in San Clemente were good neighbors,” Merrilees said.
Moreover, the campground’s 90 campsites, with just 30 for RVs, is far less dense than the mobile home park’s 375 sites, he said. “It’ll be the last ocean front campground in California.”
Pirkle also earned the grudging respect of her opponent. Carol Hoffman, for years the public face of the Irvine Company in Newport and Irvine, spoke at a banquet on Pirkle’s behalf and attended a tree dedication in her honor, said Gary Booth, Pirkle’s husband. “He underestimated her power to win,” Booth said about Bren.
Besides Pirkle, other board members included Alan Beek, Jim Hartley, Dale Ghere, Walt Howald, Carol Maxwell, Ed Merrilees, Rich Salter and Berenice Maltby.