Imposing structures slated for  unstable slope alarm neighbors

The existing houses on Lemon Hill will be dwarfed by the proposed project.  This view, with story pole boundaries filled in, is of the cul de sac that stops where the hillside begins. 

By Tina Richards

A proposed six-unit luxury estate development on a hillside in North Tustin, featuring two stories of living space, subterranean nine-car garages, and rooftop entertainment decks, has been approved by the county planning department, and is awaiting a grading permit to begin moving dirt.

What makes this project different from most others is that at least two of the proposed multi-story units will be built on a slope that failed when another developer began grading it in 1991. The hillside above Lemon Hill, below St. Thomas Drive and adjacent to Orange Knoll has been considered unstable since at least 1978. An optimistic developer planned to stabilize the slope with caissons and installed more than a dozen near the hilltop. It rained. The mostly-clay soil tumbled down around the caissons, leaving them standing tall above the slide area.  The slide threatened four homes at its base, and nearly undermined a swimming pool, which had to be quickly shored up by county engineers.  

“That slide was actually the second one,” says Don Rosholm, who has lived on Orange Knoll since 1973.  “The second builder put up the caissons because the hillside had come down before.  Both developers went bankrupt.”   An OC Register article reported that the slide occurred on the fourth development attempt.

Slip sliding away
Now, Newport Coast Management, a Palm Springs developer, wants to try again.  The company, incorporated as Lemon Hill Luxury Estates, LLC, claims that advanced technology will enable it to stabilize the hillside and build multi-story homes with subterranean garages and upper level swimming pools.  It is proposing an elaborate system of underground horizontal and vertical support beams and a retaining wall. 

The North Tustin Advisory Committee (NTAC) reviewed the developer’s project application in November and recommended the county reject it.  The committee voted unanimously to deny the project because it was given no plans or data, the applicant did not seem to “have a handle on soil conditions,” had done minimal community outreach, county-provided grading materials were “illegible” and NTAC’s purview was being “limited by unusable materials.”

NTAC member Mike Fioravanti noted that “people on Orange Knoll had half their homes buried during the original work” in 1991.  He was disturbed that Project Manager Frank Eder didn’t know where Orange Knoll is.  

NTAC, however, is advisory only, and county planners do not have to follow its recommendations. Because the project falls within existing zoning designations (small estate), it received planning department approval with little public notice.  Homeowners within 300 feet of the property were notified of the NTAC meeting, but few understood the scope of the development.  There is no information about it on the county website; there will be no public hearings at the county planning commission or the board of supervisors meetings.

Shock and awe
The project is now waiting for a grading permit from the county building department.  Before the permit is issued, county engineers must assess the project’s stabilization scheme.  While the department’s initial assessment is it  “meets standards,” it has asked for an outside third party review, which is pending.

Meanwhile, homeowners surrounding the property have been scrambling to find out what’s going on, and what they’re finding is alarming.  The advertised two-story single-family residences are actually four stories of unforgiving rectangular construction. 

“I just found out about this,” says Lemon Hill resident Sid Mughrabi.  “The house is going to be so tall we won’t see the sun.  We won’t get any light.”

The developer installed “story poles” that indicate the height and width of two of the proposed structures. They loom over the backyards of neighbors on every side. “They’re hanging over everybody,” says Ellen Smiley of St. Thomas.  “I can see it from every room in my house.  Whoever lives there will be able to see me in every room, too.”

“It’s an invasion of privacy,” says Jacques Doumani, who lives on Lemon Leaf. “The developer told me they were going to be two-story, single-family homes.  He lied to me.”

Is anyone home?
County planners say that the residences fall within the zoning’s 35-ft. height limit and “are compatible with the neighborhood.”

Residents beg to differ. With subterranean garages, two levels of living space and a “party patio” on top, neighbors count four stories.  And they don’t believe the “single family” designation.  “Who needs a nine-car garage?” Roxanne Doumani asks.  “Who sends their children out to play on a top story patio? This is a party house, not a single-family residence.”

The Foothill Communities Association, which just found out about it, agrees that the project is not compatible with the neighborhood. Because there were no public hearings on the project and no information presented ahead of time, residents were unable to comment on the project before it was approved. 

If the grading permit is granted, they have little recourse, other than a lawsuit.  And that in itself is dicey.  “It’s not good,” says Smiley,  “but it’s apparently legal.”

And the slope is still unstable, Don Rosholm reasserts. “Nothing’s been built there for a reason. The soil is crumbly, it drifts down like powder. We’ve had to replace block walls because they crack.  Another neighbor had to re-do his swimming pool because it was getting cracks in it.”

“I’ve talked to a real estate appraiser,” Smiley says. “If these monstrosities go in, our property values are expected to drop by $75,000 to $150,000.”