Greenway Alliance foregoes politics to pursue grant funding

By Stephanie Lesinski

After a failed pact with a developer group, the Santiago Creek Greenway Alliance (SCGA) is looking to government grants to fund trails throughout Orange County.

“The purpose is to hone-in our shared vision plan, and use this as a tool for writing grants,” said Pamela Galera, SCGA vice president.

Galera was referring to the Orange City Council and SCGA’s new Santiago Creek Vision Plan, which is pending approval by the city. According to Galera, the group has always had a vision plan; however, it has never been formally adopted by the city. 

Where you will not see the SCGA focusing its efforts is with developers. "Instead," Galera said, “the purpose is to create a multi-purpose travel system and to preserve the greenway. Beyond that, we are not willing to take a stance on development.” 

In 2014, SCGA lent its support to the failed Rio Santiago Plan. That proposal, by Milan Capital/JMI Properties, was for a mixed-use development, including an 81,000-sq.-ft. sports complex, and nearly 400 units to be built on the 109-acre former Sully-Miller site at Santiago Canyon Road and Cannon Street in East Orange. The SCGA supported the plan because it also called for hiking access near Santiago Creek. Orange City Council nixed the Rio Santiago Plan after the city planning commission raised concerns and city staff questioned the minimal funding being allocated for flood control and preservation of Santiago Creek. The parcel of land is downstream from two dams, and is subject to periodic flooding. 

Opposed to the Rio Santiago plan were many Orange residents who spoke at various planning commission and city council meetings. The site borders a former landfill that requires active methane gas vents. Comments ranged from concerns over increased noise and traffic, to safety issues related to the methane, and the difficulty emergency personnel would face trying to evacuate residents during a flood. 

Orange Park Acres opposed the Rio Santiago Plan because it violated both the community’s specific plan and the Santiago Greenbelt Plan established in the 1970s. Those plans called for permanent open space on much of the site. 

According to SCGA member Kirk Winterroth, getting a trail along the creek is the central message of the SCGA’s new vision plan. He admits that participating in discussions with developers in the past was a mistake that diverted attention away from the group’s main mission. “We are not going to participate in talking about houses,” stressed Winterroth. “We are not a political force.”

Today, Milan Capital/JMI Properties is working with consultant Frank Elfend of Elfend & Associates on a new development plan for the Sully-Miller site. Although still in the preliminary stages, there is potential for more open space versus what the Rio Santiago Plan proposed. 

SCGA’s new plan envisions a Santiago Creek trail system that includes a section that runs through the Sully-Miller site. The vision plan calls for a 100-ft. right-of-way for a recreation trail and greenway along the creek.  It also calls for a parking lot on the corner of East Santiago Canyon Road and Cannon Street to allow for park access. According to SCGA, the creek has historical significance. A plaque in nearby Yorba Park indicates that in July of 1769, the Portola Expedition camped at Santiago Creek in this section of the property. That expedition is thought to be the first European exploration of California.

The proposed trail system and greenway would run from the Santa Ana River Regional Bike Path to Santiago Oaks Regional Park, and beyond. Closing the gap from Cannon Street to Santiago Oaks Regional Park will require construction of a Class 1 bike path across the old Sully-Miller property. The SCGA plan notes that the best case scenario would be for Milan Capital to donate the property along the creek to the County of Orange for the creation of this trail. There is no mention of equestrian trails or the extensive OPA trails that connect these areas.

The study area of the SCGA Vision Plan includes approximately 894 acres that comprise the waterway of Santiago Creek and all adjacent undeveloped properties within Orange. It extends from the southwestern city limits, where the creek passes under the Garden Grove Freeway, to Santiago Oaks Regional Park in northeast Orange. Another section of proposed trail falls within Santa Ana city limits. The primary issue in extending the creek trail there, along the 5 Freeway to the Santa Ana River, is strong opposition from home owners along the creek. 

Other objectives of the new vision plan are to recharge groundwater and to preserve flood protection of Santiago Creek. SCGA advocates removing concrete from creek beds and replacing non-native plants. 

OPA and East Orange residents, stung once by SCGA’s unconditional support of Rio Santiago, have been asked to provide input on the draft plan. They particularly want to keep tabs on the Sully-Miller portion of the trail extension. Mayor Tita Smith acknowledged their concerns at the Nov. 9 city council meeting.

“We are not going to put this in a drawer,” she said. “It will be very public.”

Council members voted unanimously to submit the vision plan to city staff for review.