Planning commission approves zone change over community objections

By Tina Richards

The Orange County Planning Commission approved a zone change, Nov. 8, enabling a community-opposed 21-unit housing
tract to be built on six acres in Cowan Heights.

The 4-0 vote to approve the zone change required Commissioners Kevin Rice, Joe Ha, Thomas Quach and Cameron Irons to reclassify neighborhood boundaries as “transitions,” factor in the higher density tracts built “across the street” in Orange and
ignore residents’ decades-long community identity. The fifth commissioner, Jett McCormick, did not attend that day’s meeting.

The property, fronting Newport Avenue just northwest of Skylark, has long been zoned for residential units on 20,000-sq.-ft. lots.
That lot size is consistent with existing development in Cowan Heights and residents want to keep it that way. They claim that
larger lots protect the community’s rural flavor, boost property values, increase privacy, and that the “cookie-cutter” planned de-velopment is not in keeping with the ambiance of Cowan Heights. Residents say they bought homes there for those reasons, and rely on the zoning to protect their investments.

Stick to the zoning
When developer Steve Sheldon presented plans for his then-22-home project on lots averaging 10,000 sq. ft. (some more, some
less), it was rejected by the North Tustin Advisory Committee, a county-appointed body mandated to provide guidance on local development. Sheldon subsequently deleted one unit to accommodate minimum 10,000-sq.-ft. lots.

Cowan Heights neighbors, however, continued to oppose any development that did not conform to the 20,000-sq.-ft. minimum,
and have been making their case to uphold the zoning using whatever means they can. Planning commission approves zone change over community objections

A petition advocating the existing zoning, and rejecting the proposed 50 percent cut, was signed by 2,000 residents. Every Thurs-
day at 7:30 a.m., neighbors gather on the sidewalk next to the property holding “no rezoning” signs. North Tustin leadership met with several planning commissioners and have shared their concerns with Supervisor Todd Spitzer.

Sheldon is justifying his zone change request based on nearby housing projects with similar or higher densities than his proposal.

Rocking Horse Ridge, located on the other side of Newport Avenue, contains 7,000 to 15,000-sq.-ft. lots; the lots in the tract bordering Skylark are 6,000 to 7,000 square feet, or less. His tract, he says, fits in with those nearby higherdensity neighborhoods, and is appropriate at that location.

Apples and oranges
His opponents point out Rocking Horse may have similar lot sizes, but its density is 1.7 to 2.3 houses per acre, while Sheldon’s
project is 3.5. Further, Rocking Horse Ridge is set back from Newport Avenue, surrounded by foliage, and does not interrupt the
pastoral streetscape.

The tracts featuring smaller lot sizes that he cites are in the city of Orange. And, Cowan Heights residents insist, developments
designed and built in the city of Orange do not represent North Tustin.

Sheldon bolstered his “fits with the surroundings” premise with a series of public speakers who “live close to” or frequent Peters
Canyon. Each one assured the commission that the proposed 21 homes would not produce a negative impact on Cowan Heights.
One speaker said that because the acreage is flat, “it’s not really Cowan Heights.”

Commissioner Kevin Rice, who lives in the area, mused at length about what constitutes a neighborhood. “Some have a narrow view,” he acknowledged. Does it stop at Peters Canyon? What does this project have to fit into? Will these people interact with each other? The Orange development with smaller lots by Skylark is just 400 feet from this project site, is it appropriate to
have a lot-size transition there at Newport? Will 21 units ruin the diversity of Cowan Heights, or increase it?

"The question here,” he said, “is that this project is on the edge, it’s on Newport and new residents won’t be driving through Cowan Heights, so would it be appropriate?”

The elephant in the room

His colleagues agreed that the parcel was transitional, and would fit between higher-density Orange and lower-density North
Tustin. Commissioner Cameron Irons suggested that Sheldon’s desire to reduce the lot sizes in half was akin to lot splitting, and
that there would be more of that coming in the future. He also told the audience that, due to the high cost of development, smaller projects “don’t work economically.” “Builders,” he said, “want to maximize profit, and we shouldn’t penalize the applicant (Sheldon) for that.”

One topic that got little attention during the public hearing was the recent fire that burned Peters Canyon, singed nearby houses
and severely damaged at least one. A resident and firefighters on the front lines acknowledged that if the houses were closer to-gether, it could have been worse. The Sheldon development, as presented, will include the latest in fuel modification and fire prevention techniques, and has been OK’d by the OC Fire Authority. But how it would fare in a hot, wind-driven conflagration like
the one witnessed in October was barely discussed.

Commissioner Rice did mention the fire, allowing that the development’s impact on the fire zone was one of his concerns. "I'd
like someone to tell me why the fire stopped at Peter's Canyon. Had it kept on burning, skipped down, it would have been a big
mess."

"We got lucky," One front line firefighter said afterwards. “The wind stopped.”

The project is slated to go before the Board of Supervisors Dec. 12