Smaller-scale housing project okayed for North Tustin

By Tina Richards

A Cowan Heights housing project, with its proposed 21 units shaved to 16, was approved by the Orange County Board of Supervisors, Feb. 6.

Located on six acres adjacent to Newport Avenue, just south of Kingsbridge Road, the project had been opposed by residents because it required the parcel’s 20,000-sq.-ft.-lot zoning to be cut in half, was located in a severe fire zone, and would alter the appearance of, what the county named, a scenic highway.

The Board of Supervisors okayed the zone change and certified the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) Dec. 12, but deferred approval of the actual project pending negotiations between builder Steve Sheldon and the Foothill Communities Association (FCA), at the behest of Supervisor Todd Spitzer, whose third district includes the development site.

The FCA and Sheldon subsequently reached an agreement wherein the housing units would be reduced to 16 to make room for large turnaround cul-de-sacs at each end of the one-street project.  Residents of Cowan Heights, with fresh memories of the threat to their neighborhood by last fall’s Canyon 2 Fire, feared the original plan for hammerhead turnarounds would not give fire equipment enough maneuvering room. The recent experience illustrated the importance of defensible space.  

Piecemeal is no protection
While FCA leadership agrees that the 16-home project is better for the community than 21 homes, the zone change that enabled even that lower number remains an uneasy portent of things that might come.  “This is a conflicted day for us,” North Tustin resident Jane Rice said at the hearing. “We’re relieved by the agreement. It’s the best under the circumstances.  But we oppose upzoning.  Not just in North Tustin, but throughout the county.  It’s not in the best interest of residents.  It’s reaching crisis proportions.  We will continue to try to prevent approvals.  We’re not sure what the best road forward is, but engaging in hand-to-hand combat on every piece of property available is not productive.”  She asked that the board consider a better approach for the future, one that would earn board approval and that could “spare long, protracted lawsuits” down the road. 

Board Chairman Andrew Do agreed.  “Going forward, we don’t want 'door-to-door' combat.  We need to discuss options for the future.”

While Spitzer was applauded by his board colleagues for steering the FCA and Sheldon into an agreement both parties could live with, the exercise was of his own creation.

During the December board meeting, Supervisors Do, Shawn Nelson and Lisa Bartlett (Michelle Steel was absent) appeared to appreciate the pleas of public speakers and a petition signed by 2,000 North Tustin residents to deny the zone change.  Board members, however, are customarily inclined to defer to the supervisor whose district is in play.  In this case, they looked to Spitzer.


White knight unseated
Throughout his tenure as a supervisor, Spitzer has been a champion of North Tustin’s unique characteristics and the community’s desire to maintain its large-lot, non-commercial orientation. He convinced the county to withdraw from a lawsuit over a proposed multi-story senior facility that defied the North Tustin Specific Plan.   He later persuaded the board to overturn entitlements that a previous board had given to the developer for that property.

This time, however, he supported the zone change, leaving his constituents aghast.  “I offered to help the FCA negotiate with the developer, but they turned me down,” he said during the December meeting.  “Something needs to be built there.”  He then voted to approve the zone change and certify the EIR, but delay plan approvals until he could bring the parties together to “come up with a better project.”  His colleagues followed his lead.  With the 20,000-sq.-ft.-lot mandate on that parcel officially changed to 10,000 sq. ft., there was little left to negotiate.

Developer Steve Sheldon got the zoning he requested; the community’s only remaining bargaining chip was a lawsuit, which the FCA’s attorney filed in January.  Both parties, however, agreed to meet with Spitzer and attempt a compromise.  In exchange for fewer housing units and better fire access, the FCA agreed to drop its suit.