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Subject: Frank Robinson, 84; He Fought to Save O.C. Bay

Newport Beach
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Date Posted: April 11, 2003 4:18:50 EDT

Environmentalist Frank Robinson, considered a founder of Orange County's conservation movement and credited with the preservation of Upper Newport Bay, died Thursday. He was 84.

Physicians were uncertain of the cause of his death, but Robinson had been in failing health and suffered a stroke after his wife, Frances, passed away in 2001. He died in his sleep at his home in Newport Beach.

Robinson, a retired aerospace engineer, is hailed by environmentalists as the catalyst for preserving Upper Newport Bay.

"Without him, we'd be looking at Marina del Rey, rather than the reserve that we have that is bigger than Central Park," said Bob Caustin, founder of Defend the Bay.

After graduating from the University of Cincinnati, Robinson moved to Southern California and married Frances, a Los Angeles native and longtime environmentalist. Frank embraced her passion, and later described her as the heart of Newport Beach's conservation movement -- saying he was just the mechanic.

The couple moved to Newport Beach in 1962, a time when wetlands were considered swamps. The Robinsons were well aware of the critical role wetlands play in the ecosystem and grew alarmed by efforts to develop Upper Newport Bay.

In one well-publicized legal battle in the early 1970s, Robinson's Orange County Foundation for the Preservation of Public Property blocked the Irvine Co.'s efforts to turn the upper bay into a marina and housing.

The Robinsons circulated petitions and organized protests, and their group successfully argued that the tidelands were a public trust that should not be handed over to developers. The unprecedented court ruling meant the county could not transfer the land to the Irvine Co. The developer eventually negotiated a sale of 750 acres to the state for $3.5 million that created the Upper Newport Bay Ecological Preserve.

Robinson was involved in another battle in the 1980s against the Irvine Co. that resulted in the company turning over 144 acres atop a bluff, including a new park site, in order to expand the nearby Fashion Island mall.

In recognition of their work, the main exhibit at the bay's Interpretive Center is named for the Robinsons.

"When you put half a lifetime into something, there's not a big enough batch of superlatives to describe your joy," Frank Robinson said just before the center opened.

Robinson also worked on other Orange County coastal access issues. As a Harbors, Parks and Beaches commissioner in the 1970s, Robinson ensured that Dana Point Harbor would not be restricted to wealthy boaters.

The Robinsons sparked an environmental sensibility in Newport Beach, local leaders said Thursday.

"He basically was my inspiration -- he and Fran," said Jean Watt, a Newport Beach environmentalist and former councilwoman. "I think they were what opened my eyes to what citizens could do and kind of led the way."

Jay Robinson of Toluca Lake said his father fought for such ideals throughout his life.

Frank Robinson was born in Charleston, S.C., in 1918. After graduating from college, he shunned the South.

"He moved as far away from the South as he could, which was Los Angeles," Jay Robinson said. "He didn't return to the South for 38 years.... He could not stand the prejudice and bigotry he had grown up with."

In addition to his son, Frank Robinson is survived by a daughter, Dana Prince of Sacramento, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Memorial services will be at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at the Upper Newport Bay Interpretive Center, 2301 University Drive, Newport Beach.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations in his name to the Newport Bay Naturalists and Friends, P.O. Box 10804, Newport Beach, CA 92658.

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