Lawsuit seeks to overturn Orange City Council's certification of EIR for East Orange housing development

By Tina Richards

The opening brief in a lawsuit filed by the Orange Park Association against the City of Orange challenging its certification of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for Milan Capital’s Trails at Santiago Creek, delivers a lengthy list of the EIR’s flaws, fallacies, deferments and contradictions and asks the court to reverse the approval.

Environmental Impact Reports, a requirement of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), are not mindless paperwork, bureaucratic red tape or a box to check in the development process.

They are intended to provide decision-makers and the public with a comprehensive understanding of how a given development will affect air and water quality, traffic, noise, natural resources, aesthetics and a slew of other concerns.

The EIR for the Trails at Santiago, a 128-unit housing project proposed to be built between Santiago Canyon Road and Santiago Creek in East Orange, does little or none of that.

Accentuate the positive
“The site contains silt ponds, gravel pits, contaminated soils, and leaking methane gas,” the legal brief, written by OPA attorneys, advises. “These hazards present enormous development constraints, which CEQA requires to be meaningfully analyzed, disclosed, and mitigated before project approval. But the EIR short cuts meaningful environmental analysis by recycling obsolete studies, deferring critical plans until after project approvals.”

The site is also located in a high fire hazard zone and is on a flood plain that has been underwater, most recently in 1969. It is also subject to flooding if the Villa Park Dam were too fail. Based on the EIR’s outdated studies, cursory analysis, and promises of future plans, the city found the project will result in almost no significant environmental impacts. Ironically, much of the Trail’s EIR recycles the EIR produced for a previous project on the same site in 2014. The Orange Planning Commission and City Council rejected that plan.

While the majority of East Orange residents oppose the project Lawsuit seeks to overturn Orange City Council’s certification of EIR for East Orange housing development ect., noting the area was always intended to be open space or a regional park, as defined in three land-use documents dating back to 1973, some of the site’s neighbors in The Reserve and Mabury Ranch support the housing development. They argue that housing is better than the mounds of construction waste that continues to pile up on the property and that the developer has promised to restore Santiago Creek and leave
acres of open space, with trails and amenities.

Guess again
The EIR, however, does not support that promise with any details or plans, and offers no hint of who would do the cleanup, how exactly the creek would be restored, how flood control would be managed, how wildlife would be protected, how trails and amenities would be designed, how much it would cost, who would pay for it and who would take charge of preserving and maintaining the acreage.

Remediation plans, wildlife displacement, flood control, trails and amenities will all be addressed “in the future.” OC Parks has indicated it is not interested, based on what is and isn’t in the EIR. The benefits claimed in the EIR, OPA’s attorneys wrote, “…are based on undefined, underfunded
plans to be prepared by some unspecified entity in the future.”

Likewise, the site’s scope of contamination, chemical pollution and consequent remediation will be fully investigated “in the future,” as will resident evacuation plans in the event of flooding or fire. Of note, the 2017 Canyon 2 Fire that forced evacuees onto congested roads and clogged exits was not mentioned.

Eliminate the negative
Many details that did find their way into the EIR were contradictory or incomplete. The report says that site preparation will require 245,400 truck trips, but those were not included in the traffic study, which was limited to the 1,219 daily passenger car trips associated with the future subdivision. The traffic study itself was done in 2010; the EIR did not explain how that data reflects “current conditions.”

The EIR’s noise analysis rests on the assumption that the project “does not propose any uses that would require a substantial number of truck trips.” But the same document notes that the project “would result in substantial numbers of trucks traveling to and from the site on a daily basis.” The noise, dust and traffic analysis also failed to consider the Chandler fill operation, just downstream, that would introduce 64,000 truck trips onto the same streets.

The City of Orange has a tree ordinance designed to preserve and protect mature trees. The EIR duly reported that “there are 323 trees on the project site” and, later, that the “project site contains 204 trees.”

Never-ending story
The first Draft EIR released for review in 2018 was so heavily criticized by public agencies and citizens that the city compelled the developer to produce a “Recirculated EIR.” It, too, contained deficiencies brought up by the public during the planning commission and city council hearings on the Trails at Santiago Creek.

Council members Kim Nichols, Mike Alvarez and Chip Monaco, under the leadership of Mayor Mark Murphy, approved the project and certified the EIR in a unanimous vote in October 2019. Shortly thereafter, Orange voters circulated a petition to place the issue on the November 2020 ballot. More than twice the needed number of signatures were collected, and the measure asking voters to reject Milan’s project will appear on the ballot.

The lawsuit challenging the EIR was filed on Nov. 21, 2019, and is slated to be heard in Superior Court on Oct. 19. “The real environmental costs of this project are still unknown, and the benefits and purported mitigation largely illusory,” the opening brief asserts. “The public deserves to have a full accounting of both to ensure that the deal made by the City and Milan does not sell them short.”Type your paragraph here.