By Adrienne Gladson, AICP
Property development around Orange County is a jigsaw puzzle, with each piece fitting appropriately into the planned vision of that community. Easy stuff has been developed, which means what remains is “hard stuff” -- tougher to fit together. Some entitlements present more difficulty in making the pieces fit.
The Sully-Miller site certainly falls into the “hard stuff” category. Why? It is incredibly constrained due to past mining use and adjacency to a protected waterway with habitat. Located east of a former landfill with ongoing methane issues, it is also at the intersection of two major roadways. Additionally, the area has a history of wildland fires and floods. It is primarily identified by the Orange General Plan and Orange Park Acres Specific Plan as a future regional park and open space.
It’s a fair assertion that if it was an easy place for homes, they would already be there. Further evidence on why it’s tough to entitle is found in the history of the Fieldstone or Rio Santiago projects in the last two decades. Similarly, The Trails at Santiago Creek is anticipated to move into commission/council hearings this summer. The commission hearing will provide us the city’s recommendation to approve or deny this request.
I reviewed the Recirculated Draft Environmental Impact Report (RDEIR), and am tracking release of the Responses to Comments (RTC), due at least 10 days before the planning commission hearing. I have two key questions requiring answers in the RTC and the hearings.
1. Why should city council change the General Plan to allow more homes on-site?
Is residential expansion the best land use for this location? Will that growth impact the rest of Orange? Does it negatively impact what was planned here under the General Plan? Have all environmental impacts, plus consequences to quality of life, services and neighborhood character, been evaluated and mitigated. Neither the Orange Planning Commission, nor city council is mandated by law to change course. It comes down to determining if the change brings community benefits, and how and when they are delivered. Sound planning decisions, centered on good governance, require compelling reasons to change established land use direction for any property. This question needs full reason and explanation, with public good as its central focus.
Follow-up questions include: what impact does the project’s loss of open space to Orange mean cumulatively, since we already identify an unacceptable deficit? Does the community endorse change, as demonstrated by wide-spread civic support?
2. Is the Recirculated Draft Environmental Impact Report adequate?
Are environmental requirements met? Are disclosures complete? With over 300 comment letters submitted on the RDEIR, all must be considered. Most raise fair arguments, but several present more substantive questions requiring further assessment. Pay attention to these four when the RTC is released:
•City of Villa Park, dated December 26, 2018
•Shute, Mihaly, Weinberger LLP of December 28, 2018
•Wittwer/Parkin LLP, dated December 31, 2018
•Orange Park Acres Association SMARA letter of May 14, 2019
These raise significant questions. A project’s EIR adequacy is the lynchpin question before any EIR is certified and a Statement of Overriding Considerations granted.
Reviewing and synthesizing the details and evidence of an EIR is complex, critical work, but it’s essential to understand all impacts. A proper EIR process confirms the document is rich in facts, supported by evidence, and tightens up impacts not adequately addressed or deferred. I believe it is beneficial for decision-makers to consider these comments and the project through focused study sessions. There is much to learn and understand to make this puzzle fit seamlessly.
Adrienne Gladson is a former City of Orange planning commissioner. She is a land-use consultant.
Response to comments offers answers for a complex land-use puzzle