Orange council tract map approval shortchanges community input

By Tina Richards

Orange Park Acres’ efforts to ensure development within its boundaries adheres to its specific plan were shrugged off Nov. 13, with the Orange City Council’s approval of a tract map that would put houses on the horse arena site on Santiago Canyon Road.

It’s not the potential addition of houses, or the loss of the horse arena that rattles residents. It’s the city’s and the builder’s disregard for OPA’s role in the planning process and inattention to details that conflict with its specific plan. Residents are also aware that property owner Milan Capital owns the Sully-Miller property across the street, a portion of which falls within the OPA Specific Plan.  Milan is preparing to ask the council to remove that acreage from the OPA plan entirely. 

Milan Capital has allowed the horse arena to operate since it purchased the site 10 years ago, but has made it clear that the seven-acre parcel is zoned for housing. Milan has used the arena as a trading card for higher-density housing and zone changes on its other Orange properties. The proffered horse arena failed to convince the community to accept housing on the former Ridgeline Golf Course in 2011. It’s not winning hearts and minds with regard to its 128-unit Sully-Miller proposal now.

Missed the mark
OPA does not oppose the six-unit r-1-40 zoning for the horse arena because the one-acre lots conform to its specific plan. But there are details beyond lot size that the Orange Park Association says were ignored when the tract map was approved by the planning commission. The association board has historically had review authority over any project proposed within its influence, but it did not weigh in on the arena map until after the planning commission hearing.

The OPA review committee missed that deadline because the city did not notify it when the tract map was released. The city says it didn’t have to notify OPA, that it was the developer’s responsibility. Milan consultant Frank Elfend says he gave the tract map to the OPA board president on Aug. 31 and that “he should have known” that was the official notification. Board President Don Bradley says it is the city that has contacted him about project reviews in the past, and he expected the same courtesy on this project.

When the tract map came before the city council, Nov. 13, OPA President Don Bradley asked that it defer its decision until all were satisfied the objectives of the OPA Specific Plan had been met. His request was denied. Elfend and city planner Robert Garcia promised the council that the map’s major conflicts with the specific plan – curbs, gutters, street lighting – had been removed. The tract would now feature the “rural roads” that characterize OPA.

The road not taken
While rural roads were a major sticking point with OPA residents, they were not the only identified conflict with the specific plan. Community members urged the council to consider the importance of the property as a hub for trails, to make sure it was designed to accommodate agriculture and large animals, avoid on-street parking, and allow for a variety of structural setbacks. Many public comments mirrored the conflicts outlined by Bradley in a letter sent to the city prior to the council meeting.  

“The proposed project presents numerous conflicts with the OPA Specific Plan,” he wrote.  “The OPAC (Orange Park Advisory Committee) recommends that the city council refer this project back to the planning commission for full consideration of the OPAC’s recommendations and public comments.”

Elfend dismissed OPA’s concerns, noting that it was “the same 10 people” who testified at the planning commission and the council meeting.

Ironically, the council had spent an earlier portion of its meeting discussing two other Orange communities – the Old Towne Historic District and the Eichler tracts – and made decisions intended to preserve the character of those neighborhoods. On behalf of Old Towne homeowners, the council amended Mills Act contracts (property tax trade-offs) to include restoration/renovation work done inside a historic district home. 

The council also agreed to overlay a historic designation on the city’s Eichler tracts, and carefully considered the details of the design standards generated to honor the history of the district. 

Check it twice
“I would ask,” said OPA resident Laura Thomas, “that you give the same care you gave to the Eichlers to the OPA character.”

Council member Kim Nichols did ask for clarification that the horse arena tract map addressed all of the conflicts noted by the OPA board. Robert Garcia’s response that the proposed perimeter trail “met city standards” and that, save for the rural roads, everything else would be addressed later when “the houses come in” seemed satisfactory to the council, if not the audience.

Mayor Tita Smith noted that she did not want to send the matter back to the planning commission because she did “not want to hold things up.”  

So far, the approval process has not been held up. The tract map had been issued on Aug. 31 and it went to the planning commission just one month later. When asked what the timeline for development was, Elfend said, “We don’t have one.”

The council voted unanimously to approve the tract map.  The decision to accept the map without fully addressing OPA’s concerns was not taken lightly by the community. In public comments and social conversations, OPA residents are vocal in their commitment to protect their specific plan. It is the reason, advocates say, that the 90-year-old community has retained its rural equestrian heritage as urban development has, for decades, nipped at its heels. 

In the late 1960s and early 70s, the City of Orange annexed portions of Orange Park Acres to accommodate developers. Residents were alarmed at the proliferation of higher-density subdivisions making their way through city approvals. The Orange Park Acres Specific Plan was drafted by a committee of residents, landowners, developers and city and county planners to create guidelines that would preserve the community.

The plan was subsequently approved by the city council and the county in 1973. Aside from several tracts that were given the city’s go-ahead prior to the plan’s adoption, every new development in OPA has conformed to the one acre minimum zoning and specific plan guidelines.  

December 2018