April 24 Program at Dana Point City Hall Chamber: “A Historical Overview of Regional Parks and Open Space in Dana Point”

April 24 Program at Dana Point City Hall Chamber: “A Historical Overview of Regional Parks and Open Space in Dana Point”

Join us at 6:30 pm on April 24 to hear a presentation by Eric Jessen, a 45-year Laguna Beach resident and longtime Board Member of the Laguna Beach Historical Society.  The Jessen family settled in Santa Ana in 1869 and moved to Laguna in 1915, where they founded the first insurance company in town.  In 2005, Eric retired as chief of the County of Orange Harbors, Beaches, and Parks Department. Prior to that employment, he was a landscape contractor, during which time he designed and executed the historic landscape restoration of the Laguna Beach National Historic Landmark, Villa Rockledge. He has also served the city as Chairman of the Historic Advisory Board that performed the original survey of historic buildings in Laguna Beach, and was also president of the South Coast Water District.  This presentation will be given at the Dana Point City Hall Chamber. Refreshments will follow at the Society’s Museum in Suite 104.


Eric Jessen recently retired from his position as Chief, Orange County Harbors, Beaches & Parks (now OC Parks). He was with the department for 31 years.  Prior to that he was a master planner for large southern California projects including LAX redevelopment, the Fluor Corporation world headquarters in Irvine and Balboa Park in San Diego.  Prior to that he was a strategic planner for Howard Hughes holdings, and did the first master plan for the Ballona Wetlands near Marina del Rey.  While Eric was in college, he was a landscape contractor, specializing in ocean front estates in Laguna. His magnum opus in this arena was the historic landscape restoration of the Villa Rockledge, Laguna’s only home on the National Register of Historic Places. Eric’s undergraduate and graduate work was in physical geography and biogeography, both at CSU Long Beach.

When Eric started with the County Harbors, Beaches & Parks Department in 1975, they had about 7,000 acres in regional parks, about 100 acres in local parks, and about $ 5 million in grants for park, trail, and coastal facilities.  During his tenure they grew to 41,000 acres in regional parks, 1100 acres in local parks, 10 historic sites, and $ 150 million in grants.

Eric’s main job was to negotiate regional and local park dedications from developers in return for development, and to get grants to develop them.  He has also played a leadership role in developing and updating the Orange County Harbors, Beaches & Parks capital expenditure program, in which land purchases and park and coastal recreation development programs are undertaken.

Eric has played a vital role in establishing twenty of the County’s regional parks, including Aliso & Wood Canyons and Laguna Coast Wilderness Parks, Limestone Canyon & Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park, Upper Newport Bay Ecological Preserve, historic sites including the Helena Modjeska home in the Santa Ana Mountains and the Irvine Ranch Historic Park. Among his last large construction projects were the 10,000 square foot museum at Upper Newport Bay, the new Harbor Patrol headquarters in Newport Bay, the demolition of Aliso Pier, and reconstruction of the Irvine Mansion as the Katie Wheeler Library in Irvine.

Eric has been very successful in helping to establish one of the most widely respected county Harbors, Beaches & Parks systems in the nation, as well as the system of community and local park and open space facilities in Dana Point,Mission Viejo, Laguna Hills, Aliso Viejo, Foothill Ranch, Rancho Santa Margarita, Coto de Caza, North Tustin and elsewhere.

Eric’s ancestors settled in Santa Ana in the early 1870’s, where they operated the only blacksmith shop. As the business matured, they built carriages and farming equipment for the county’s pioneer farmers, including James Irvine II. As the business transitioned into the automotive era, grandfather was involved with inventing and developing the Westinghouse railroad air brake, the first automatic transmission, the Hydromatic, for General Motors, and even the lowly golf caddy.  His great grandfather, John Peter Jessen, also founded the Santa Ana Marble works, at which most of the pre-1900 headstones at Santa Ana Cemetery were carved.

The Jessen’s moved to Balboa Island in 1905, then to Laguna in 1915. But in order to maximize their careers, his ancestors maintained homes in Los Angeles, where Eric was born in 1946. He was raised in Beverlywood, and returned to Laguna in 1962.

Eric’s favorite past times are Italy, where he visits more than once a year, his family retreat at Mt. Whitney Portal at 8,500 feet altitude in the High Sierra, and cultivating the history and beauty of Laguna Beach. His principal hobbies are photography, exercise, cooking, and Italian history and culture.

Since his retirement, Eric handles special assignments for the Irvine and other prominent families and is an environmental consultant to the museum industry, specializing in finding the locations on the ground where famous canvases were painted.

His talk at the Dana Point Historical Society’s January 2013 meeting will cover the emergence and establishment of both regional and local parks and open space in the Dana Point area.

Before and since his retirement he has served in the following capacities:

President, South Coast Water District Board of Directors

Foreperson, United States Federal Grand Jury 1999-2001

Member, Mission Hospital Laguna Beach Advisory Board

Chairman, South Laguna Water & Sewer Commission

Board of Ruskin Art Assn. Board of Los Angeles, affiliate of Getty Center and Huntington Research Library (oldest cultural arts association in Western U.S., established 1876)

Board of Laguna Beach Historical Society

Board of Mt. Whitney Non-Profit Corp.

Chairman, Transportation Corridors Agency (toll roads) Aesthetics Committee.

Chairman, Laguna Beach Historical Resources Advisory Board

Chairman, Laguna Beach Landscape Resources Advisory Board

Chairman, Laguna Beach Flood Task Force

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