A former golf course in the heart of Orange Park Acres was sold recently by the investment group that tried for years to build homes on the 50 acres.
The former Ridgeline golf course, off Meads Avenue in east Orange, was taken off the market Dec. 27, sold by Anaheim-based Milan REI IV LLC, property records show. Neighbors in the rural enclave say the property was purchased by one of their own.
Milan Capital Management had acquired the property after the golf course closed in 2006, and tried for several years to get approval to build there. Community members fought to keep the land as open space; a lengthy legal battle ensured. No homes were ever developed.
Sherry Panttaja, president of Orange Park Acres’ board of directors, said residents of the community known for its equestrian lifestyle were “very pleased that a local Orange Park Acres resident bought the property, and we know that he will protect the land and use it for open space.”
Panttaja said the new owner, who could not be reached for comment, has expressed plans to “beautify the property” and keep it undeveloped.
The vacant property, on which shuttered tennis courts still stand, was for years embroiled in a legal battle, after Milan Capital and a developer proposed plans to build 39 homes on one-acre lots within the former golf course.
Community members led a successful signature-gathering campaign in 2011 to get a referendum on the ballot the following year, and voters rejected the development, with 56% against the city’s action to re-zone the property as residential.
The developer sued, and the case went all the way to the state Supreme Court, which ultimately sided with residents in 2016. The following year, the City Council reverted the land designation to recreation and open space, ending the years-long development battle.
Milan Capital later proposed dedicating the Ridgeline property to the city as part of a separate housing project dubbed The Trails at Santiago Creek, which was planned on another expanse of land to the northwest edge of Orange Park Acres. That project was similarly fought by residents, with a referendum that stymied development on the more than 100-acre property off Santiago Canyon Road.
Now, with the sale of Ridgeline to a private resident, some community members feel the chance to preserve the property as public open space has passed.
Mark Moore, who in 2018 created the group Santiago Greenways and Open Space Alliance, considered The Trails at Santiago Creek project an overall win for the community because of the public benefits it included. Milan Capital’s proposal stipulated the company would fund the city’s acquisition of the Ridgeline property, as well as provide more than $8 million to be used for traffic, trail and land improvements and recreational or equestrian uses.
Moore, who lives adjacent to the 109-acre site proposed for the Trails project – it is commonly known as the Sully-Miller property – said his group “really wanted” to be “heard about trying to create parks and open space while we had this opportunity, and not get drowned out by Orange Park Acres.”
He said he considers it a loss for “everybody” that the development proposals never came to fruition.
“The opportunity to create a central park in the middle of East Orange on the Ridgeline property has now been lost,” he said in an email.
But Panttaja said the city never laid out what it planned to do with the former golf course if it was acquired in the development deal.
“The city at that point could have turned it into whatever they wanted,” she said.
Many Orange Park Acres residents were pleased to see someone in the community take the property off the market, she said, to avoid the potential for another development proposal down the line.
“We’re pleased that it’s not going to be something that would have disrupted the middle of our community,” she said.
Orange Councilwoman Kimberlee Nichols, who owns a café bordering Orange Park Acres, said she can understand frustrations on both sides after years of back-and-forth over the property’s use.
On one hand, the development proposal that would have allowed the city to acquire the Ridgeline property “would have been a benefit to the community as a whole because, obviously, park and open space is difficult to come by, and we don’t have as much as we should have,” she said.
But for the residents who live around it, “there are at least some neighbors up there who don’t want any sort of recreational activity going on up there, because they live near there, it would bring potentially traffic and those kinds of issues,” she said.
Nichols noted that city officials had not discussed what they would do with the Ridgeline property or the public benefits money included in the Trails proposal if it came to fruition. After the project was shut down, the prospect of the city acquiring the land was effectively over.
“The city doesn’t have the resources to acquire 50 acres of property,” she said. “We would have had to kind of get a lot of ducks in a row in order to be able to secure the money, be able to do that, and that just doesn’t happen overnight.”
The Ridgeline property has “created a lot of angst for years,” Nichols said. “And now it’s in a different set of private hands. Hopefully nothing will happen that upsets the community as a whole.”