Fate of controversial zone change will go to voters
By Tina Richards
Orange voters will decide whether the city council’s approval of a zone change amendment on the Sully-Miller property in East Orange should stand or be reversed, as the issue will be placed on the ballot this November.
The city council had the option, at its Feb. 11 meeting, to either rescind its approval of the zone change, in response to a referendum signed by over 13,000 residents; call for a special election; or put the item on the November ballot. A special election would cost the city $450,000 to $500,000; putting the item on the November general election ballot would cost $8,500. The council opted to wait until the fall.
The council, Oct. 22, approved the zone change and a general plan amendment to enable 128 houses to be built on the former sand and gravel mining site. The parcels have long been identified as open space by two governing specific plans and the city’s Geneºººral Plan. The property owner, Milan Capital, has been using the acreage as a dumping ground for construction waste, and promised neighbors most affected by the noise and dust that it would stop the activity once housing construction began.
Aside from neighbors living immediately adjacent to the site, most Orange Park Acres and East Orange residents did not believe the promise. They noted that the dumping operation was likely illegal, and continued only because the city turned a blind eye and did not enforce its own codes. The development agreement between the city and Milan allows the dumping to continue up to 15 years – the time the investor has to finish the housing project.
In exchange for a “promise” to shut down the dumping, the proposed housing, residents insisted, would increase traffic congestion on Santiago Canyon Road and Cannon (already parking lots during rush hour), delay evacuation efforts during fire emergencies (as witnessed during the Canyon 2 Fire in 2017) and add density to the semi-rural area. Project opponents also noted that the site is a dam inundation zone, that Santiago Creek is subject to flooding and building houses there would not only jeopardize future inhabitants, but increase hazards downstream.
Residents also discounted Milan’s promise to provide 60 acres of open space. Although the investor agreed to install trails and a greenbelt, Milan has not said who will clean up the area, deal with any hazardous waste, restore Santiago Creek or manage the land.
During the council’s deliberations over its next steps following the successful referendum, several members applauded the OPA/East Orange community for its efforts to collect signatures and make use of the “democratic process.” “I’m prepared to put this on the ballot,” Chip Monaco said, “let you complete the work you started, and let the voters decide.”
“Anything other than putting this on the ballot would not be right,” Mayor Mark Murphy declared. “People were told they could vote on this.”
Prior to the council’s unanimous vote to ballotize the issue in November, several of the citizens who had gathered signatures for the referendum shared their experiences with the council, and reminded them of the site’s long and controversial history.
“Your vote to approve Milan’s development triggered a citywide protest,” David Hillman reported, citing conversations he had with citizens when collecting signatures. “Everybody had questions, they wanted more information,” he said. One couple invited him in for dinner so they could continue talking.
Orange resident Theresa Sears recalled previous failed attempts to develop the property, the mistakes made along the way and the council’s seeming inability to learn from history. There was the Fieldstone project in 2003. The council approved it, residents launched a referendum opposing it and the council reversed itself.
The Ridgeline property across the street also generated a referendum when the council approved 39 homes to replace recreation-use zoning. Placed on the ballot in 2012, citizens overturned the council’s decision. The council ignored the vote, residents sued and the case eventually wound up in the state Supreme Court, which found for the citizens.
A 400-plus-unit project on the Sully-Miller site was rejected by the planning commission, and then the council itself, in 2014.
“I’ve learned a lot over these past 20 years,” Sears said to the council. “What have you learned?”