Guest Commentary

What developers don’t tell you

By Daniel Correa

As an Orange planning commissioner for six years, I have learned that we have to be cautious when it comes to development. Slow growth can be as equally destructive as fast growth. What we need is thoughtful planning that provides for balanced growth.

The City of Orange does need more parks. But when Milan Capital, the applicant for Sully-Miller, says that it is going to hand over to the city (or the county) more than half of its property for parks and open space, in exchange for the removal of huge mountains of dirt and the right to build homes, one must be cautious of the offer. 

Developers’ presentations are, for the most part, commercials for their projects. Whatever works. Developers do not give up prime real estate. They will, more likely, give up land that will be costly to develop and/or to maintain. Steep slopes, unstable ground, buried utilities and pipelines, pollutants or contaminates, all make for costly development. They are also costly (for taxpayers) when left as open space.

Open land does not generate revenue for the city and has the potential to become an economic drain, a white elephant for the community. The so-called “gift” of Sully-Miller acreage triggers a variety of unknowns. What cleanup is required?  What contaminants exist? Is the soil stable? How will Santiago Creek be rehabilitated?  Who pays for it? Who is liable for future natural or unnatural problems? Is there an endowment to cover future costs? Who will manage it?

To objectively analyze the merits of a project, a planning commissioner or elected official must methodically study the plan and base his findings on fact, not emotion. I would venture to say that all of us, at one time or another, have purchased an item based on emotion, only to regret it. 

Hence, a developer’s game plan is often to play on negative emotions created by unpleasant circumstances. In the case of Sully-Miller, the plan is to make the development site so unattractive and/or such a nuisance that the neighbors will accept any project, just to bring the unpleasantness to an end.

Remember, the developer’s objective is to maximize the site at the lowest cost possible, and not consider the community’s comfort zone or the negative impacts the project will inflict on the community or its environment. That’s why decision makers must pay close attention to a project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) as all of the analyses are paid for by the developer. The developer selects the firm that will conduct the EIR studies, which in turn hires specialists who may, or may not, be objective. Think “expert witnesses” in a court case. Both sides hire the ones who will support their case.  

Finally, it must be understood that a city’s General Plan and an area’s Specific Plan must, ultimately, agree with each other. The General Plan is the blueprint for the city, mapping future growth to follow function. The General Plan is implemented by the city’s zoning code and specific plans.

Specific Plans are more detailed than General Plans, as is the zoning map. The OPA Specific Plan, for example, has particular guidelines, e.g., one-acre lots that allow for animal keeping, not spelled out in the General Plan, but defined by the zoning code. The Sully-Miller investors are proposing homes on less than one-acre lots, even though the site is designated open space. While density is not addressed in the General Plan, the OPA Specific Plan was clear, and would have to be altered because it designates the site as open space. Altering the OPA plan in such a manner would nullify what the community has worked to preserve for 91 years. Therefore, the examiner of a development project must read the fine print and decide if such a change is, indeed, worth the risk. 

Daniel Correa is a former City of Orange Planning Commissioner. He can be reached at (714) 497-0118 or website, CorreaConsultants.com

April 2019