North Tustin residents interacted with representatives from county agencies prior to the Foothill Communities Association annual meeting, held March 5 at Foothill High. Those present included OC Parks, Public Works, Sheriff’s Department, Fire Authority, East Orange County Water District, Golden State Water and Supervisor Todd Spitzer’s office. Photo by Tony Richards
Local crime, the homeless and hillside hazard are top topics at FCA annual meeting
By Tina Richards
Foothill Communities Association (FCA) members mingled with representatives from county agencies, were updated on local crime statistics and the homeless issue, and were alerted to a tenuous development proposal at its annual meeting, March 5.
Sheriff Lt. Pat Rich reported that his department serves 25,000 residents in North Tustin and that at least one patrol car, often two, is on duty there 24 hours a day. While the area experiences “minimal or nonexistent” violent crime, vehicle burglaries, theft and “crimes of opportunity” are on the rise. Nonviolent crimes numbered 144 in 2016 and 219 in 2017. The majority of those, he said, were enabled by unlocked vehicles, residential windows and doors. “Be vigilant,” he advised. “If you see something suspicious, call us. Fifty percent of our calls are preventive, and we respond to them quickly.”
Supervisor Todd Spitzer delivered the keynote address, emphasizing that “homelessness is the biggest issue facing our county, and we are taking forthright steps.” He summarized the county’s February efforts to clear the Santa Ana Riverbed homeless encampment and find alternative shelter for those being displaced. “The riverbed will not become Orange County’s skid row,” he said.
Bite the bullet
The county’s initial attempts to clear the riverbed were challenged by a lawsuit. The judge in the case, David Carter, required the county to find temporary housing for the people it was “evicting.” “We have 697 people in 582 motel rooms.” Spitzer reported. “The right to housing is not in the constitution, but we had to bite the bullet.”
Where those individuals will go when their motel stays expire is unknown. “It’s a coordinated effort,” the supervisor said, “by government agencies, law enforcement, social services, nonprofits, business and residential communities. We need to talk about this as a county. It’s not one city’s problem.”
The riverbed cleanup netted 530 tons of trash, 10,000 hypodermic needles and 2.5 tons of biohazard waste. “We need to find a solution that is not hand-holding,” he stressed.
“Many of the homeless tend to abuse drugs or alcohol, or are mentally ill.” Noting that drastic solutions like forced medication are distasteful, something has to be done because “it’s going to get worse.”
Spitzer attributed some of the increased homeless population, as well as the growing crime rate, to the early release of prisoners, and the reduction of drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. Prisoners are dumped back onto the street, he said, and there’s no leverage to get drug offenders into programs, because a misdemeanor “doesn’t matter.”
From homeless to home density
While homelessness is indeed a countywide issue, of more concern to North Tustin residents is the proliferation of inappropriate, high-density home developments. The FCA just lost a battle to protect its long-held 20,000-sq.-ft.- lot zoning on a six-acre parcel on Newport Avenue. The county approved a zone change to allow for 10,000-sq.-ft. lots, thus increasing the apportioned density on a property surrounded by low-density neighborhoods.
The communities’ multi-year opposition to a three-story senior living facility that violated the North Tustin Specific Plan was settled when the FCA negotiated a compromise with a new developer. Spearheaded by Todd Spitzer, the community agreed to drop its ongoing litigation (with no guarantee of winning) and accepted a smaller, single story, less obtrusive version of the home for seniors.
Spitzer advised annual meeting attendees that the project, now called Clearwater, still has to go back to the North Tustin Advisory Committee, the OC Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors for approval. He expects the construction documents to be readied this summer, concurrent with more community outreach. Ground is not likely to be broken until the summer of 2019.
It is the steeply sloping ground above Lemon Hill Drive and below St. Thomas that has the attention of the homeowners who live there. A developer is planning to build luxury homes on a hillside that failed back in 1991 when another builder began grading it. The landslide threatened four homes, and county engineers worked around the clock to prevent a resident’s swimming pool from coming down the unstable hill. A September 1991 OC Register article noted that at that time, four separate developments had been attempted and had experienced “problems with soil stability.”
A Lemon Hill resident who lives below the slide zone asked county planner Colby Cataldi for advice. “Developers can ask for zone changes or variances for their projects,” she said, “how can a homeowner request a ‘down zone?’ Don’t I have the right to protect my property and my environment?”
Cataldi’s answer that she could provide input to the county’s “orange to green” zoning code update offered no immediate relief. When pressed, Cataldi told her they could “talk about it later.”