Updated at 8 a.m. with information from city planners.
City planners said Wednesday that up to 35 homes could be built on a portion of Joan Irvine Smith’s 20-acre property on the east side of town, currently on the market for $20 million, according to listing agent the McMonigle Group.
For more than 25 years, the Oaks has staged the breeding and training of American sport horses. A lifelong equestrian, Smith was also instrumental in the development of the . The riding park is next to the Oaks and has been home to Olympic trials and Rolex World Cup events.
The Oaks' General Manager, Sheri Grady-Merkle, declined to comment about why Smith is selling the venerable land.
The front half of the Oaks Farm property facing Ortega Highway is designated in the city’s long-term planning documents “low-density residential,” while the rear half of the property, near San Juan Creek, is designated protected open space. While each 10-acre parcel is zoned “open space recreation” (to allow for Smith’s equestrian operations), the front half is also zoned to allow a maximum of 3.5 dwellings per acre, or about 35 units total, said San Juan's development director, Grant Taylor.
It's "a beautiful farm but it's private property," said Mayor Sam Allevato. "Whoever purchases it has the right to come to the [city] to apply for whatever is out there."
Allevato said that the oak trees on the property are some of the oldest in the area, more than 200 years "when Father Serra was traipsing around here."
"I'm confident the planning staff would vet it very rigorously," he said of any plans to develop the land.
An Irish immigrant, Joan's great-grandfather, James Irvine, came to California during the Gold Rush and eventually acquired much of the 120,000-acre Rancho San Joaquín, later developed and incorporated into the city of Irvine.
A press release issued by Grady-Merkle says Smith, 77, will continue to be "an activist for the stewardship of California’s bountiful environmental resources."
Smith, who regularly attends City Council meetings wearing a black beret and a red coat, will continue her breeding operation at the Oaks—Indian Hill Ranch.
This story was originally published March 28, 2011, with updates added March 31.