By Peter Jacklin

Every time I drive on Santiago Canyon Road, I wonder why millions of cubic feet of toxic material were allowed to be piled onto the former Sully-Miller property. 

For years, the site has been noisy, caused traffic disruptions and dust storms and has been accused of thrusting carcinogens into the air. The owners of the site have received several notifications of violation of municipal ordinances. Yet, it goes on. One wonders why.

Material began to be delivered to the site over public roads several years ago. The owner of the property argued that it needed to be graded for a future housing development. More earth was required to accomplish the task, the owner proclaimed. The City of Orange agreed and issued permits to proceed. 

Molehill into a mountain
Some argued that the mountains of toxic material were delivered to irritate the neighbors, hoping that they would submit to anything to get rid of the piles of dirt. Others believed that the material was being used to cover up more toxic substances, placed there years earlier by the mining operators. Many favored both thoughts.

Perhaps, the piles of dirt and the covering up are a metaphor for bigger things.

Beginning at the turn of the last century, the property had been mined for sand and gravel in one form or another. Natural material had been deposited on the site for thousands of years as heavy rains had washed tons of rocks and pebbles from higher ground through Santiago Creek to the Pacific Ocean – enough to have created 16 percent of the sand and gravel treasure in Southern California. The area from the Villa Park Dam to the 55 Freeway is so rich in the material needed by the construction industry, that the State of California registered the land as an “area of regional significance” in 1976 as part of the state’s Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA). The designation remains in effect today.

The property was annexed into the City of Orange in 1965. At that time, it retained its years-old sand-and-gravel zoning. After several changes of ownership, the land remains with the same zoning, even as it has been used and continues to be used for other purposes. Some uses were not, and are not, compatible with the zoning.

SMARA requires several things of the operator of a mining operation. The first is a reclamation plan describing how the land will be returned to a condition conducive to a higher and better use – not its original condition. A second is that “area(s) of regional significance” cannot be modified in any way that will destroy their ability to contribute to the local economy.

Asked, but not answered
For several years before SMARA went into effect, the City of Orange asked the owners of the property for a reclamation plan. In 2003, the State of California again asked the owner for a reclamation plan. The owner refused to respond in each case and Orange ultimately supported the owner. No reclamation plan has been produced -- ever.

It’s a matter of dispute with the City of Orange as to when the mining ceased and was replaced, in part, with a rock crushing operation. It’s also unclear when, and if, the rock crushing operation ceased. To this day, the property remains zoned as if mining occurs there, making the land subject to state mining laws in addition to municipal laws.

At one time, then-owner Sully-Miller Land Company rented a portion of the property to a green waste mulching company in violation of the sand-and-gravel code. Green waste mulching must be performed in industrial areas zoned as M-2. Several notices and more than 18 months were needed to stop the violations.

The property changed hands to its current owners in two transactions in 2007 and 2008. The grant deed expressly prohibited operations on the property that were similar to that of the previous owner. Yet, with the city’s approval, the current owner imported millions of cubic feet of toxic waste from road renovation, concrete demolitions and other earthen extractions, which reside on the property today – surely in violation of the “area of regional significance” clauses of SMARA. Like the earlier green waste situation, the current operation is in violation of the sand-and-gravel codes. Orange does nothing.

Nothing's changed but politics
Now this land is involved in a third attempt to have its zoning changed to allow housing. The first project was stopped in 2003 by a voter referendum; the second project was narrowly defeated four years ago. Little has changed to make the land more buildable – much has changed to make a zoning change much more likely.

Daniel Correa, a planning commissioner noted for his focus on community concerns and unwillingness to give developers carte blanche, has been removed from the city’s planning commission by City Councilman Mike Alvarez. Adrienne Gladson, who holds similar beliefs, is no longer on the commission. Gladson’s term was not renewed by new Mayor Mark Murphy. Both commissioners had voted previously against developing the property.

With Murphy’s escalation to mayor, his seat on the city council remains open. The unanswered question at this time is how this seat will be filled and by whom. The idea being floated today is to appoint the wife of a notorious advocate of the property owner.

One would think that the toxicity of the land, the nearby methane-producing retired landfill and its history as a flood inundation zone would be enough for city staff to reject any plan for human habitation. That does not appear to be the case. My wonderment, and yours, should now turn to reasons why any project could be approved there. Perhaps the city’s egregious errors over the past decade would be forgotten and forgiven if they were covered up with piles upon piles of formed concrete, asphalt and soon to be methane-filled homes.Type your paragraph here.

January 2019

Guest Commentary:

Piling it on, covering it up