OPA residents debate costs vs. benefits of Sully-Miller development proposal

August 2018

By Tina Richards

If a lively discussion among Orange Park Acres residents at their July Trails and Town Hall meeting is any indication, the community remains firm in its resolve to ensure that the proposed housing development on the Sully-Miller property conforms to the area’s specific plan.

The status of the East Orange project was just one of the topics covered, but it drew the most passion. The update presented by OP Association President Don Bradley covered the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR), negotiations regarding the number of potential houses, and community benefits the developer, Milan Capital, is offering in trade for upzoning a portion of the property to accommodate more units.

The 109-acre property, situated between Santiago Canyon Road, The Reserve and Mabury Ranch, is bisected by Santiago Creek.  It was home to a sand and gravel mining operation, then used as a repository for dirt hauled in from construction sites. The land and the creek have been abused and neglected for decades. Milan wants to build 129 houses on 40 acres, leaving the creek and its surrounding lands as open space.

Trading up
Of the acreage Milan wants to build on, 26 acres fall within the OPA Specific Plan, and 14 within the East Orange General Plan. Neither plan includes residential zoning. Milan, however, does have zoning to build on 12 acres north of Santiago Creek abutting Mabury Ranch, as well as on the seven-plus-acre horse arena site across the street. That translates into an optimistic 46 houses on 20 acres.

A community liaison committee, composed of seven community members and Orange City Council members Kim Nichols and Mark Murphy, has been negotiating with Milan’s consultants, Frank Elfend and Carmen Morinello, over the number of units developed and where on the property they will be sited.  The committee, with the blessing of the OPA board, has suggested that the existing development rights be traded for currently designated “open space” areas adjacent to Santiago Canyon Road.   

That trade, say committee members, will move the project away from Mabury Ranch, preserve the horse arena, and allow Milan to build the 46 houses the company is entitled to on the 40 acres it wants. Orange Park Acres could amend its specific plan to one-acre residential lots, consistent with the rest of the community. The one-acre lot restriction would apply only to the acreage within the OPA plan; the houses that wouldn’t fit could be constructed on the property covered by the East Orange Plan. That plan, too, would have to be amended.

Dueling for dollars
Milan, however, wants to build 129 houses on smaller lots and plans to ask the city for higher-density residential zoning within the bounds of both plans.  In exchange, Milan will donate its 52-acre Ridgeline property to the city, move the horse arena to that site, provide $1 million for trails, $1 million for traffic improvements, and $4.1 million to clean up the creek and its surroundings.

The questions residents pondered at the trail meeting were: are those “benefits” worth the corruption of the community’s long-held specific plan? And, what would be the long-term consequences?

“If we allow smaller lots there, what will prevent others from subdividing their properties?” several meeting attendees asked.  Others expressed concern that they wouldn’t be horse properties, which would not “honor our rural lifestyle.” “If the city rezones the property as residential," one person asked, "won’t Milan – or a future developer -- be able to build more than the promised 129 houses?”  “I’m still worried about the increased traffic caused by 129 houses,” said another. “I thought the environmental report had to be redone,” a resident noted. “How can we be talking about units when we don‘t know what this project is going to look like, or how it is going to impact us?”

Indeed, the DEIR, deemed inadequate by most every agency and community member that reviewed it, must answer the questions and concerns it raised before it can be certified.  Without a certified EIR, the project cannot proceed.

“That,” said Don Bradley, “must be addressed by the developer. We’ve made our comments, we’re waiting for the developer’s responses.  The appropriate zoning restrictions will have to be left to the lawyers.  What we can do is continue negotiations to preserve the OPA plan.  OPA’s interests,” he summarized, “are to minimize homes and impacts, ensure zoning restricts future development, cure the DEIR problems, and keep all the proposed benefits.”

Benefits no bargain
OPA resident Theresa Sears, a long-time advocate for responsible land use and development, ran the numbers.  Her conservative calculations, based on the estimated value of land upzoned (beyond existing entitlements) that Milan is asking for vs. the value of what it is offering the community, indicate that OPA is leaving a minimum $11 million on the table.  

Milan wants residential upzoning on 20 more acres (beyond those already entitled), which is worth roughly $20 million.  The Ridgeline property (ruled “open space” by the California Supreme Court), money for trails, the horse arena, Santiago Creek refurbishment and traffic improvements totals $8.6 million.  “We’re agreeing to let them develop on twice the acreage they’re entitled to,” she advised meeting attendees. “We’re being generous, which is of benefit to them, but they must limit density, and respect our equestrian community.”

Residents agree that it would be beneficial to have the Ridgeline property go to the city – and perhaps regain the lost golf course, tennis courts and swimming pool.  They also agree that the current condition of the property is an eyesore, and an open space/trail connection to Santiago Oaks Park would be welcome.

The consensus at the meeting, however, was not at the expense of the specific plan.  

“We do want a project,” Sears said. “But the OPA plan and our rural lifestyle should be a given. It must be done correctly.”