By Tina Richards
A smaller version of the proposed senior living facility that spurred a 10-year battle between the county, Orange Catholic Diocese and Foothill Communities Association (FCA), was approved by the North Tustin Advisory Committee (NTAC), April 18.

The 100-unit, one-story facility grew out of a settlement agreement drawn up to end litigation over its 150-unit, two-story predecessor, slated to be built on a seven-acre Newport Avenue parcel owned by the Catholic Diocese of Orange. The 150-unit building was approved by the county in 2011, but challenged in court by FCA, primarily because it violated the North Tustin Specific Plan (NTSP), did not fit in with the surrounding residential neighborhood, and would have generated “commercial” activity (deliveries, services, truck traffic) in the otherwise quiet community.

FCA prevailed in the lower court, but lost on appeal by the diocese in appellate court. By then, the third district supervisor who had spearheaded the approvals had been termed out. The new supervisor, Todd Spitzer, was asked by constituents to reverse the county’s amendments to the NTSP that enabled the project and restore the document’s integrity.  

Undo the damage
Spitzer succeeded in getting the damaging amendment reversed, which essentially stopped the senior living facility. The diocese sued the county, challenging the zone change that restored the NTSP. Before the case went to court, Spitzer brokered an agreement between the diocese, the county and FCA. The resulting Clearwater Senior Living was a scaled-back version of the original proposal that the community was willing to live with, rather than bank on an unpredictable court decision that might favor the original proposal.

The new Clearwater plan, presented by consultant Carol McDermott, features concessions, she said, beyond what the county requires.  Border landscaping will include mature trees, and will be installed prior to construction.  Building height will be 20 feet, with a chimney and tower going up 28 feet. Grading will be reduced by 94 percent, with most surface dirt remaining on the site. McDermott also stressed that the builder has agreed to pay $311,000 in park fees to help build a passive public park at Newport and Crawford Canyon.

Redo the undoing
“I’m confused about our role here,” NTAC member Peter Schneider said at the onset of the Clearwater discussion. “I thought this was settled. What are we being asked to do?”
County Planner Kevin Canning explained that the agreement still had to go through the county process, and that it did not commit the county to approve the new plan. If the county did not approve it, however, it would go back to court. 

Noting that the settlement appeared to force the county to approve the project, Schneider remained skeptical of the committee’s role. “Does it matter what we do here tonight?”
“We’ve been asked for comments,” Gail Michelsen responded. “The builder still has to jump through hoops.”

The first hoop was NTAC, with the committee asked to approve an amendment to the NTSP designating 6.6 acres on Newport as Residential Care Facility, a use permit for 100 units, and a grading permit for more than 5,000 cubic yards of dirt.

Despite assurances from Canning and McDermott that the committee’s actions had not been overridden by the agreement, it seemed clear to the members that the North Tustin Specific Plan was going to be altered again. “We are,” Michelsen noted, “an advisory body only.”

Back to the future
“The county should have stuck with the specific plan in the first place,” Mike Fioravanti said. “We wouldn’t be here now.  I’m wrestling with it.”
“I can’t support rezoning,” Schneider agreed. “It’s a fundamental problem. The settlement spoke to the building; but the principle behind the zoning has not changed in seven years. The constituency in this area doesn’t want it to change.”

Michael Holmes noted that none of the opponents in the room that night had mentioned the specific plan. Indeed, residents living next to the property had brought up concerns about trees, noise, truck deliveries, setbacks, the lack of walls and an access road with an elevation six inches lower than the top of a backyard fence. “I haven’t heard much about zoning,” Holmes said.
Gail Michelson asked Canning if the project could proceed without a zone change. It could not.
“The NTSP is the holy grail,” Lance Jensen assessed. “I’m not throwing in the towel, but entities with more power have chipped away at it."

“I’ve always supported the North Tustin Plan,” Michelsen acknowledged, “but we’re talking about compatibility with the neighborhood. The first project wasn’t. This plan is a huge compromise.  If we don’t approve it, we could end up with something much worse.”

The committee voted 5-2 to recommend approval. Fioravanti and Schneider offered the dissenting votes.

Community resigned to scaled-back version of senior living facility here