September 2015

Buried gas pipes resurface to challenge another developer

By Tina Richards

Neighbors who live along the old railroad right of way stretching between LaVeta and Fairhaven in Orange thought that when the city denied a developer’s application to build six houses there in 2007, the linear property would most likely become an extension of the Esplanade Trail.

After all, the mostly 50 to 60-ft.-wide strip of land can’t accommodate many houses, it’s not zoned for any development at all, and it’s a corridor for two buried gas pipelines.   One pipeline is currently active, transporting natural gas; the other has been used to deliver jet fuel and other petroleum products, but is now dormant.  

The pipelines were a major factor in the city council’s rejection of the housing project eight years ago.  Orange officials were concerned about building houses nearly on top of gas pipelines, noting the dangers of leaks or explosions, and the city’s liability.  The owner/operator of the pipelines, Kinder Morgan, had a “terrible safety record” at that time, with one councilman noting 44 violations in the previous three years.

Railroad wrong of way
Aside from the inherent risk of building houses next to aging gas pipelines, the council also found that there were “too many houses for the space,” line-of-sight issues for existing residents, and insufficient parking.  The rejected developer subsequently sold the right of way to Rudy Murrieta, an Orange resident.

Now, Murietta has enlisted local developer Roger Hobbs to resurrect the housing plan for the property.  Hobbs is dealing with the “too many houses” issue by reducing the number from six to five, but the same neighbors who attended city council meetings and hammered on the pipeline safety issue in 2007 are prepared to make the case again.

“It was a bad idea in 2007, and it’s a bad idea now,” says Dottie Ronan, who lives directly behind the proposed houses.  “Nothing has changed, and if anything, it’s gotten worse.”  By worse, she means the conditions of the gas pipelines.  While federal and state requirements are in place to ensure pipelines are monitored and maintained, Ronan’s independent research indicates that they are not.  

Thar’ she blows
The Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, created by the Department of Transportation to regulate underground pipes at the state level, has been criticized for “lacking effectiveness and oversight.”  Regulators do not inspect pipelines, but instead, depend on documentation supplied by the system owners.  And this system owner, Kinder Morgan, has a reputation for playing fast and loose with regulations, preferring not to spend money to comply with federal standards, but to simply pay the fines when it gets caught.  Since 2003, the company has been responsible for at least 180 spills, evacuations, explosions, fires and fatalities in 24 states.  Thirteen major incidents involving leaks or explosions have been reported since the City of Orange originally opted for safety over housing back in 2007. 

While the new proposed development has been given a name – the Old Orchard – and residents who attended an informational meeting on the topic were given sketches of what the houses will look like, a spokesman for Roger Hobbs says the builder is simply exploring the potential for development at this time.  “We’re just doing community outreach to see if this is a good fit,” Brian Lochrie said.  “No paperwork has been filed with the city.”

Lochrie also points out that the empty site currently attracts the homeless and drug users, which a housing project would displace.  

Tight squeeze
“They’re talking about putting five 2,900-sq.-ft. houses on 7,000-sq.-ft. lots,” Dottie Ronan reports.  “And a 10-foot-tall block wall to separate the new homes from ours.” The houses would be built in a 400-ft. wide “bulge” in the right of way. The buildable space is not large enough for a cul de sac, so Hobbs is envisioning a hammer-shaped dead-end instead. Ingress/egress would be via a private drive off of LaVeta. 

When researching pipeline regulations, Ronan found guidelines for development recommended by the pipeline safety administration.  “The recommendation is not to erect any structure – not even a garden shed – within 25 feet of the pipeline,” she says. “Houses should have at least 50 feet of clearance.  The developer claims his plans allow for that, but I measured the property, and I don’t see how that’s going to work.”

Ronan accepts that many of the existing houses within the neighborhood lie within 50 feet of the pipeline.  “These houses were built in the 1960s,” she says. “They did a lot of things then that we wouldn’t do now.  Today, we know better.”