Advisory committee says “no” to new Cowan Heights development

By Stephanie Lesinski

After hearing protests from a packed room of concerned homeowners, the North Tustin Advisory Committee (NTAC) voted unanimously against a zone change that would have paved the way for 22 new homes on Newport Boulevard. 

Sheldon Development, LLC is seeking to build on a 4.4-acre parcel at the southeasterly side of Newport Boulevard, across from Kings Bridge Road, below Cowan Heights. “This is the farthest section of North Tustin -- not the jewel of North Tustin. It’s almost in Orange,” Steve Sheldon told NTAC board members. 
Matthew Palanca, speaking on behalf of the property owners, told the committee they received many offers for the property. If they decided to sell to an entity such as a church, he said, it would be difficult to deny a “special use” permit.  And a church or school, he suggested, would generate more traffic and congestion than the housing tract.

Apples and oranges

Cowan Heights homeowner Doug Esson called Palanca’s remarks “a veiled threat.” Esson was one of approximately 60 homeowners from nearby neighborhoods that attended the meeting. Many, such as Esson, voiced concerns over the negative effects increased traffic and higher-density homes would have on their community.

Much of the debate centered on whether the development should be considered part of Cowan Heights. Homes in Cowan Heights sit on half-acre lots. “We are not trying to be Cowan Heights,” Sheldon said, “but it does meet the current neighboring density.” As an example, Sheldon referenced Rocking Horse Ridge, the community that sits across the street from the parcel. According to Sheldon, lot sizes in Rocking Horse Ridge range from 7,000-15,000 square feet.  Current zoning of the land intended for the Sheldon development allows for 20,000 square foot lots, but Sheldon is seeking to cut that in half -- to 10,000 square feet.

“The lot sizes there were a mistake,” Brian Thomas of Rocking Horse Ridge told the committee. “I love the neighborhood, but the lot sizes should have been larger.” He also said that exiting from the tract onto Newport Boulevard is dangerous, “cars are going 50-60 miles per hour around the curve.”
Also opposed is Jenny Benford, a Cowan Heights homeowner who presented a petition with the names of more than 400 of her neighbors. “You said you weren’t trying to be Cowan Heights,” she said to Sheldon. “You are Cowan Heights, and I think that’s part of the problem.” 

Bigger, not better

NTAC member Gail Michelsen referenced a previously proposed development on this same site. She asked Sheldon, “You are aware this board denied a project in 2008 with seven homes? You are planning to build 22 homes.  What is different about your project?”
Sheldon pointed to part of the plan that called for an expensive water treatment system. “I am not following that argument,”      Michelsen responded, “because the developer would have to absorb the cost of storm drains, no matter what.”

Foothill Communities Association President Rick Nelson told the committee, “This is going to reduce the desirability of North Tustin. You are reviewing an incorrect project.”

Members from Orange Park Acres also attended. “We’ve supported the communities that opposed developing in Peters Canyon, and we’re here to lend our support to these residents as well,” said OPA Association President Laura Thomas. 

In response to homeowner concerns, the committee asked Sheldon if he would consider amending his plan to include a landscape buffer along Newport Boulevard and a wider driveway to better accommodate anticipated traffic issues. Sheldon told the committee that reducing the quantity of lots was “not on the table.”

No meeting of the minds

During the committee's deliberation before the vote, Michelsen referred to Palanca’s remarks about the owner’s option to sell the parcel to a church. “I do take this as a veiled threat. The county does not approve conditional use permits willy-nilly.” Michelsen said any applicant that requests a zone change would be required to present a compelling argument.

Palanca told the committee, “We will sell. We have to sell. It’s time.”

“We didn’t approve it for

seven homes,” said NTAC member Sara Gerrick, “nothing compelling was presented to change it.”

committee voted unanimously to deny the plan due to issues associated with density and proximity to Newport Boulevard.

NTAC functions as an advisory committee to the county. Sheldon plans to ignore NTAC’s recommendation and pursue the project directly with the county.

January 2017