By Tina Richards

The Orange City Council’s approval of a General Plan amendment, enabling 128 houses to be built on the Sully-Miller site, was not a surprise to those following the approval process. But the council's stated reasons for voting “yes” sent shockwaves through the East Orange communities that have been vocal in their objections to the development.

The Oct. 22 thumbs up to Milan Capital’s request for a zone change, certification of the project’s Environmental Impact Report and acceptance of a development agreement was not unexpected, despite city documents, legal opinions and hundreds of letters and emails provided by residents who opposed Milan’s plan to rezone the property for tract homes.

The city’s intent to approve the project had been clear since earlier this year, when two experienced planning commissioners, fluent in complex land-use issues, were replaced with two who aren’t. City staff sided with Milan’s position that two long-held land-use plans (East Orange General Plan and Orange Park Acres Specific Plan) that designate the Sully-Miller property “open space,” were irrelevant, although city resolutions declare otherwise, and the General Plan itself recognizes both plans. 

City, not citizens
Staff also found that the inherent challenges with the site (unknown buried waste, nearby methane vents, potential inundation during heavy rainfall, deep silt deposits) could be remediated, although how and by whom has not been fully spelled out. The exception is methane exposure, which will be minimized by bladders around foundations and detection monitors installed in residences. The impacts on East Orange traffic and congested evacuation routes are, according to city staff reports, not a problem.  

Aside from a question to staff about traffic (restriping Santiago Canyon Road will fix it), methane (no leakage at this time) and open space reclamation and management (someone else will do it), few of those issues were deliberated by the council.  Instead, members based their approvals on the assumption that only OPA residents oppose the project, and that the city’s interests outweigh them. 

Councilman Chip Monaco had recused himself from the initial public hearing on the project, Sept. 24, because he owns a home within 1,000 feet of the project site. A Fair Political Practices Commission policy states that officials may not vote on an issue if they own property that could be affected by the outcome. At the Oct.  22 hearing, Monaco announced that the city attorney had cleared him, and that he would, after all, participate in the decision-making.

Best-laid plans
Councilwoman Kim Nichols was the first to present her assessment of the project. Her comments so offended audience members, half of them walked out of the council chambers.

Nichols cited language from the California Supreme Court case that Orange Citizens won against the city and Milan in 2016. “Orange citizens’ argument,” she quoted, “was that the OPA plan is subordinate to the city’s General Plan. The controlling document is the General Plan, not the OPA plan.”

The General Plan, she continued, states the site is a resource area that may serve as a “holding zone for compatible uses.” Those “compatible uses,” she projected, include housing. What Nichols overlooked is that while the General Plan is the controlling document, the “subordinate” OPA Specific Plan has the authority to designate “compatible use,” which in this case is not housing.

The term “may” is not legally binding. The General Plan states the area “may serve as a holding zone,” but it’s discretionary. The OPA Specific Plan is not discretionary. It guides land use within Orange Park Acres as a subset of the General Plan, and designates what that holding zone should be. 

The fault line
While her misinterpretation of the land-use documents angered residents at the hearing, her warning that “this project is not a threat to OPA, that the real threat would come from outside the area,” sent them running for the exits.

The real threat, she asserted, is to the county portion of OPA. Assuming that the county wouldn’t support the OPA plan either, people from “outside” could buy property and build four or five houses on it. “You need to focus your energy on making OPA a historic district so you can protect it,” she admonished.

Councilman Mike Alvarez drove that message home. “The threat to OPA,” he said, “is that you are not doing anything to protect your neighborhood. You need to get out there and create a district. You’re going to lose something, the city is going to lose something, if you don’t get out there.”  

Alvarez said he agreed with hs colleagues, and was “glad to see we speak the same language in terms of how we view this city.” Monaco said his approval was based on a “citywide perspective,” and what would do the “greatest good for the greatest number.” “The project may not be right for OPA,” he said, “but the entire city will benefit for decades.”

Deliver the “goods”
Mayor Mark Murphy also took a swipe at OPA, deriding those meeting attendees who “walked out in the middle” and applauded those who “stayed to listen to our end.”  He added that he was disappointed in “those who advanced things that aren’t factually correct just to advance their side.” He noted that this project “helps Mabury Ranch” and offers benefits to the rest of the city.

Neither Murphy, nor any other council member, acknowledged the Orange residents who don’t live in OPA, but oppose the development. None of them defined “the greater good,” beyond those who live next to the property’s ongoing sand and gravel operation and, understandably, want it to stop. No one acknowledged that, in terms of benefits, the developer’s word is all the city has to hang its hat on.

Project opponents (in and outside of OPA) have launched a referendum to put the rezoning issue on the November ballot next year and let the voters decide. They have 30 days to gather 7,000 signatures.

East Orange development scores city approval

November 2019