February 2019

By Tina Richards

The second Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) produced by the company that wants to develop the Sully-Miller property is, according to agency and citizen reviewers, not much better than the first.

California’s Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires an analysis of a proposed development project’s impacts on its existing surroundings before it can go forward.  The environmental study is not limited to plants, wildlife and the natural world, but includes air and water quality, noise, light, traffic, aesthetics, geology and soil conditions.  If the project will have a negative impact on the existing landscape or quality of life, the report must explain how those impacts will be mitigated. Since this property has also been severely abused, it presents additional development challenges that must be addressed.

Typically, once the governing agencies, members of the public and attendant attorneys have reviewed the draft document, their comments are “answered” in the final EIR, which then goes to the lead agency (Orange) for certification.  In this case, the April 2018 DEIR was so flawed that property owner Milan Capital chose not to answer the comments, but revise the document and recirculate it.

A swing and a miss
Very little changed. The recirculated version did modify the language regarding the OPA Specific Plan.  Rather than extinguishing the plan entirely, the revised document purports to work within it.  A layout of the 128-home project, absent in the first go-round, was included.  But the air and water quality analyses, traffic predictions, drainage and mitigation for toxic chemicals seeping from the adjacent landfill were based on studies done in 2011.  Much of the material in the recirculated DEIR was, like the first, cut and pasted from the document created for the site’s failed Rio Santiago project in 2014.

This shortcut was not lost on the agency reviewers. “This document is not based on this project, but instead for Rio Santiago,” OC Waste and Recycling wrote. “That plan had a greater buffer between the landfill and homes. There is almost no buffer now.  The environmental site assessments cannot be recycled and used for this project.” 

OC Waste also took issue with Milan’s claims that the project will not result in public health and safety hazards from landfill gas migration, while at the same time admitting that methane could infiltrate future site buildings. The noted concentration of gas, the agency reported, “could exceed its lower explosive limit, creating a potentially explosive mixture.”  

Calling it safe
While the DEIR advised that occupied structures would be “strategically placed to allow for future remediation,” OC Waste questioned “strategically placed” and recommended that homes within 1,000 feet of the landfill be fitted with a protective membrane, a venting pipe, and that all structures be equipped with methane gas sensors with audible alarms.

Comments from Toxic Substances Control referred to the 2011 study that reported petroleum hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) exceeded acceptable levels. “Further investigation is needed,” the agency wrote.  It also noted that hydrocarbons, VOCs and methane were detected 15 feet below ground level.  “But what about 20 to 50 feet down where groundwater is encountered?”

OC Public Works pointed out that while the DEIR claims the project’s open space and Santiago Creek would be given over to the county, another agency or an HOA, no discussions have been held with the county. “There’s no commitment with OC Parks to manage open space,” OC Public Works emphasized.  It further asked that a predevelopment agreement with the intended owner (county or otherwise) be drawn up regarding maintenance standards and habitat protection, and include an endowment. 

The roar of the crowd
The original DEIR drew 131 comment letters from concerned citizens and governing agencies; the recirculated version produced 319. Of the 304 comments received from project neighbors OPA, Mabury Ranch, The Reserve, The Colony/Jamestown, 275 opposed the project, seven supported it, and 22 were neutral.  

An OPA couple, one a biologist, the other a water system engineer, wrote, “We find the deficiencies of the DEIR to be egregious. We request that you suspend all plans for development until the negative impacts to the ecosystem, infrastructure, traffic safety and community be fully addressed.”

A Mabury Ranch resident advised, “There are so many violations in this current report, that it just confirms this project is flawed for so many reasons.  Please look at this report as a sign that this is not good for our community.”

Public comments on the recirculated DEIR were due on Dec. 31, during the city’s holiday shutdown. “I’m disappointed that the City of Orange pushed the public comments through during the holiday season,” one resident wrote. “It seems to be anti-community gamesmanship.” 

Hits, but no runs
In a comment posted on a public internet site, Milan Capital claimed that “there is so much misinformation and confusion on the project. Unfortunately, this is not simply an innocent mistake but an effort to purposely deceive the public.”

The post did not say what aspect of the project (specific plan guidelines, zoning amendments, land-use issues) were subject to misinformation, but if the claim is true, it’s being perpetrated by many unrelated sources.

Three land-use plans governing the site designate it open space.  City of Orange documents affirm OPA’s one-acre lot minimum restriction. Southern California Air Quality Management says the project will have significant and unavoidable air impacts; that the mitigation measures for the construction period are inappropriate.

OC Waste notes that comments it made in April regarding the landfill or impacts to the methane collection system were not addressed. “We are unable to determine if the project will impact the refuse mass, groundwater monitoring wells or surface water collection system.”

And Toxic Substances concludes, “if the project cannot be remediated to achieve cleanup goals for unrestricted land use, a land-use covenant and long term indoor air and/or soil gas monitoring are required for the site.”  

“We expressed our concerns in the original draft last April,” the California Cultural Alliance wrote.  “Some bad projects never go away.”

Strike two called on recirculated environmental report  for proposed Sully-Miller development