A plan for 47 houses on the Sully-Miller site, proposed by the citizen liaison committee, addresses the concerns of neighboring communities and complies with the governing specific plan.

Community unity fading as Sully-Miller developer invokes

divide and conquer tactics

By Tina Richards

Negotiations between the owner of the Sully-Miller property and neighboring residents over the size and scope of a proposed housing development have stalled, with the builder sticking to its plan for 123-129 houses and some members of the citizen liaison committee abandoning their united front for more community-centric solutions.

Developer Milan Capital owns three sites in Orange Park Acres: the 109-acre Sully-Miller property bordered by Mabury Ranch, The Reserve, Santiago Canyon Road and the closed landfill abutting Cannon; the seven-acre horse arena across the street; and the former Ridgeline Golf Course property. The Sully-Miller site, once a sand and gravel mine, has been used as a repository for dirt removed from construction projects.  

The builder currently has zoning to build six houses on one-acre lots on the horse arena; and a maximum 40 houses on the 12 acres south of Mabury Ranch and north of Santiago Creek, which traverses the acreage. The developer, therefore, could potentially build 46 homes on 20 acres.

A numbers game
Milan wants to build more. It is asking the city for a zone change to accommodate up to 129 houses. In exchange, it says, it will donate Ridgeline (zoned open space/recreation) to Orange and give the horse arena land to OPA. Of the acreage it wants to be rezoned, 26 fall within the Orange Park Acres Specific Plan. That plan restricts development to one-acre lots.

The liaison committee, comprised of representatives from OPA, Mabury Ranch and The Reserve, came up with a development plan that transferred Milan’s rights to build 40 houses north of the creek and six on the horse arena site to 47 houses south of the creek. The plan increased Milan’s buildable acreage from 20 to 40 acres. OPA was willing to allow the additional 20 acres to honor its one-acre lot zoning.  

The committee believed the plan was a fair compromise. It gave Milan a return on its investment, moved development away from Mabury Ranch, would end the dirt hauling that plagues The Reserve and protect OPA’s Specific Plan.

Milan rejected the committee’s proposal, and stepped up efforts to divide and threaten the community, much like it did for its ill-fated Ridgeline project a decade ago. It quickly filed a six-unit tract map for the horse arena property, told The Reserve representatives that if it couldn’t build where it wanted to, it would continue the dirt hauling in perpetuity, and assured Mabury Ranch it would build houses north of the creek.

A wink and a wedge
Milan consultant Frank Elfend reportedly held separate meetings with committee members Nick Lall of Mabury and Tom Davidson of OPA to persuade them to support the higher-density plan. Davidson embraced the promised “gift” of Ridgeline and the horse arena. Lall lives adjacent to the 12 acres zoned for development. He convinced his HOA board that up to 129 houses along Santiago Canyon Road were better than any number of houses next to his corner of Mabury Ranch. The board conducted a survey that suggested Mabury residents were 2 to 1 in favor of “working with Milan.” Milan consultants Elfend and Carmen Morinello were invited to present the benefits of their development plan at a community meeting, Aug. 29.

Residents who attended that meeting were largely unhappy with the additional traffic, noise and disruption that would come with 129 houses. They were vocal in their opposition. Despite the apparent disconnect between the board’s sentiments and those of the residents, the HOA now supports the higher-density project.

“I am very disappointed,” said Stephanie Lesinski, a member of the liaison committee and Mabury’s HOA board. “The City of Orange gave the surrounding neighborhoods the opportunity to work with Milan to try to find a compromise. Instead, our leadership is endorsing these divide and conquer strategies that have failed in the past.”

No dust a must
Reserve homeowners have remained largely silent, although the threat of ongoing dirt hauling next door to them appears to be getting some traction. Liaison committee member Addison Adams has made it clear that his priority is ridding himself and his neighbors of the dust, noise and mountains of dirt that now characterize the Sully-Miller landscape.  

An impromptu meeting held Sept. 10 at a private residence in OPA attracted more than 50 people who wanted to know “what is going on with Sully-Miller.” The consensus of those homeowners (including several from The Reserve) was that the OPA Specific Plan must be defended and preserved. If the plan’s one-acre lot mandate is modified to benefit this developer, the precedent will be set for the next.  As the one-acre requirement erodes, and more properties subdivided, so, too, will the equestrian lifestyle. 

If the tract map Milan released for the horse arena site was supposed to alarm OPA equestrians, it didn’t work. “We’ve been without one before,” one longtime homeowner pointed out. “What good is a horse arena” another asked, “if there aren’t any horses?”

The angst among those who fear the continual arrival of truckloads of dirt, those opposed to housing north of the creek, and those who want to preserve the OPA Specific Plan may be premature. The original Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) produced by the developer to satisfy state requirements raised more questions than answers. Of the 130 responses received from reviewing agencies and community members, only two had anything good to say.  Milan is now redoing the DEIR.  

Not there yet
“We are still waiting for Milan to respond to the letters sent from agencies, cities and the public,” says committee member Theresa Sears of OPA. “The DEIR is an incomplete and defective document and must legally satisfy the concerns raised.  Details matter as any zone change on Sully-Miller will impact surrounding community for generations to come.” 

Beyond that, Milan still has many barriers to overcome. The former sand and gravel mine must be remediated to meet state requirements. Santiago Creek must be rehabilitated. The creek is subject to flooding, so the high-water threat must be mitigated. The property also sits below two earthen dams – Villa Park and Santiago. 

The Deimer pipeline, a nine-foot-diameter waterway, runs beneath the 12 acres north of the creek. Construction is not permitted on top of the pipeline. The property is next door to the former Villa Park landfill that now produces methane gas. Milan, however, is deferring those details to the future and appears focused only on approvals for 120-plus houses.  

Many East Orange residents following the project suspect that if Milan gets its zone change, it will sell the property and leave the problems to the next developer, the city and the community to thrash out.

October 2018