August 2019

​​​Analysis:

City of Orange spinning like a top to meet developer demands and downplay community concerns

By Tina Richards

The Orange Planning Commission’s recommendation to approve or deny a zone change and general plan amendment and certify the Environmental Impact Report for a 128-unit housing project on the former Sully-Miller property was expected on Aug. 5, too late for this issue of the Sentry.

The planning commission decision, while an important part of the city’s development approval process, is merely a prelude to the weightier “final” approval or denial that the city council will determine at a subsequent hearing.

Because we say so
Orange has no legal, fiduciary or moral obligation to enable this project. But if the staff report drafted for the planning commission hearing is any indication, the city is bending over backwards to accommodate the demands of the developer and summarily dismissing the concerns of its citizens.

The staff report, for example, could have accepted the two land-use plans that cover the development site at face value. Both the East Orange General Plan and the Orange Park Acres Specific Plan clearly designate the acreage as “park,” “greenbelt” or “open space.” The staff report, however, relies on language in the plans that refers to housing (elsewhere), and concludes that this development complies with the plans’ intent. To make sure that interpretation stands, the report stresses that the East Orange Plan was always a weightless subset of the city’s general plan. The OPA document, it reports, is not a “specific plan,” but a less restrictive “community plan.” That relatively recent definition is at odds with past city records. Now, a new specific plan written by the developer will become the governing document.

“It’s clear the city and planning staff don’t understand our specific plan,” an OPA resident said after the first commission hearing. “The staff report,” said another, “reads like it was written by [developer] Milan Capital.” 

History repeated
The staff report also sticks to the city’s story that the 1975 Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA) does not apply because, it claims, mining stopped prior to that. City documents, meeting minutes and resolutions reflect that mining occurred well into the 80s. Orange could admit that it erred when it allowed mine operator Hansen Aggregates to walk away without a remediation plan. Instead, it touts a recent letter from the state Mining and Geology Board as “proof” that SMARA does not apply. The letter, however, says no such thing. It simply says that the agency would not oppose development on the site because, with aggregates depleted, it is no longer a “state resource.”  SMARA is not mentioned, and the writer notes his letter is not a legal opinion.

SMARA aside, the property still needs to be remediated before it is built on. The staff report could cite the absence of any details regarding needed restoration, but instead regurgitates developer promises that methane gas will be mitigated, houses won’t be located in a flood zone, environmental concerns raised by state and county agencies will be dealt with “later” and open space/Santiago Creek will be maintained by someone else.

A letter from OC Parks explaining why it is not interested in taking on that land at this time is reinterpreted to “OC Parks is interested.” 

The specter of flooding or fire will be mitigated with evacuation plans. Neither the developer nor the staff report suggests how residents will be able to evacuate onto the same Santiago Canyon Road that was gridlocked during the Canyon 2 fire – before 128 new houses were in the mix.

Why are we here?
The city council could deny this project for any reason (or no reason). A project on the same property was rejected in 2014. The number of units has changed; but the land conditions have not. Yet, this time, the city appears to be walking a tightrope to give Milan Capital what it wants. The question is “why?”

Why has Orange allowed out-of-town developer Milan Capital and consultant Frank Elfend to write a new specific plan to override two long-held land-use plans, authored with the cooperation and consent of the county, the city, developers and landowners?

Why, during the July hearing, would the planning commission allow Elfend to spend much of his project “presentation” disparaging the Orange Park Acres community, and calling out people who disagree with him -- by name? He spoke warmly of the Mabury Ranch and Reserve residents who support the project, but questioned the integrity and motives of anyone who didn’t.

Hear ye
“Let’s talk about OPA,” he said, launching into an interpretation of its specific plan that appeared to accommodate the project, but ignored the intent of the people who wrote it. He called the community’s opposition to the project “vitriolic, misinformed and inconsistent.” He said that project supporters “loved the City of Orange,” insinuating that project opponents did not. 

Elfend’s remarks were followed by comments from the public, many of whom took the opportunity to fire back. Of the 45 people who addressed the commission, 40 opposed the project, explaining to planning commissioners that the “misinformation” Elfend accused OPA of dispensing was actually coming from him. Speakers reiterated the site’s hazards and questioned the value of the “community benefits” the project promises to deliver. Some noted the liability to taxpayers.  

Several commenters pointed out that the rock-crushing operation and construction waste depository that Milan promises to eliminate (pending approval), was created by that company in the first place. 

The Orange City Council is on deck. Is it stacked?