March 2020

Anaheim City Council surprises by reversing condo decision

Neighbors of the Serrano Center in Anaheim Hills helped convince a city council member to change her vote and deny a zone change that would have enabled condos to replace commerce.

By Stephanie Lesinski

A group opposing the destruction of a neighborhood retail center cheered Anaheim City Council’s eleventh hour move, Feb. 11, to deny rezoning the Serrano Center.  The council voted, 3-3, to deny the zone change that would have paved the way for 54 new condos. 

Many thought the battle was lost on Jan. 28, when the council voted 4 to 2 to uphold the property owner’s appeal to move forward with the Residences at Nohl Ranch at Nohl Ranch Road and Serrano Avenue. Rezoning requires a second reading, which was scheduled for Feb. 4. Typically, the second reading is just a procedural move and, as such, was lumped with many other items under the consent calendar. However, at that meeting, Councilmember Denise Barnes stated she needed more information to vote and requested a continuance. Barnes said that when she visited the center, she was appalled at the condition of the buildings,“I think we should look at how many times neighbors reported violations on the property,” Barnes said. “The landscape is shoddy, at best.”

The Environment Impact Report (EIR) submitted by property owner John Saunders claimed the center was “underutilized.” However, a walk through the center reveals that nearly every space is leased. Also, opponents said Saunders under-reported the monthly rents by omitting the maintenance fees tenants paid. The Serrano Center hosts more than a dozen businesses, including Orange County Performing Arts Academy with a reported 600 students.

A closer look
At the Feb. 11 council meeting, Barnes was the swing vote that stopped the project from moving forward. “I said nothing at the first reading because I believed the document (EIR) addressed those fears,” she said. “However, when residents keep showing up, citing the same concerns and sharing the view that the process is unfair, then it is clear we are not offering assurance to residents who trust us to make decisions that impact our long-term quality of life.” 

Mayor Harry Sidhu and Councilmember Jose Moreno also voted against the rezoning. The mayor told council, “The Serrano Center continues to serve the community. It is a strong support for families and neighbors. This is not the right project, the right place, the right time.  So I continue to stand with the families around Serrano.” 

Said Councilmember Moreno, “When an ENTIRE community comes out and says you are going to do damage to our community, you have to listen.” When one community member from another district told council that it was not fair to approve housing in her district and reject it in another, several from other districts said they supported Anaheim Hills residents. Councilmember Moreno commented, “This could be a uniting moment for us.”

Selective hearing
Councilmembers Jordan Brandman, Lucille Kring and Mayor Pro Tem Stephen Faessel voted in favor of the rezoning. Kring told the audience she was “a property rights person” and used her allotted five minutes to read responses from the property owner. Councilmember Trevor O’Neil, Anaheim Hills’ representative, recused himself from voting, because he opposed the project at the October planning commission meeting. According to campaign finance reports, Faessel accepted $1,000 in contributions in 2019 from property owner Saunders.

Last spring, shortly after Saunders bought the Rancho La Paz senior mobile home park, tenants complained they received 200-page leases, and notices that rents were going up as much as 50 percent. The park straddles Anaheim and Fullerton. Appeals to councilmembers resulted in some rent subsidies and gradual increases.

“Councilmembers were being misled,” said Bill Leming, referring to the Residences at Nohl Ranch proposed project. “The owner was claiming this is an underutilized center, which couldn’t be further from the truth.” Leming is president of a new nonprofit group, Citizen Advocates for Responsible Development or CARD. 

A growing concern
The group recently merged with Anaheim Citizens for Sensible Development because Leming says they wanted to broaden their reach. “This issue of developers coming into our communities and demanding changes to our general plans in not isolated to Anaheim,” said Leming. “We’re in favor of well-planned development, just not the kind that threatens to destroy what makes our communities unique and special.”

While Leming applauded council’s action to deny the zone change, he said the group’s legal counsel warned that its earlier action to certify the EIR threatened to take away residents’ future rights to file a lawsuit. “We are hopeful that council will follow through with its intent to put things back to the way they were,” Leming said, “but the law only gives us 30 days, and we couldn’t take that risk.” He says the group plans to pursue legal action. The group launched a successful fundraising drive for a legal fund, raising more than $11,000 in just four days. “This was a true grassroots effort,” he said, "with people giving what they could afford. For some, that was $25. It goes to show you can do great things when an entire community is engaged.”

The reversal of the zone change and general plan amendment must be added to a future council agenda. It must first go back to the planning commission, which is likely in late March.