September 2019

By Tina Richards

The Orange Planning Commission recommended approval of a 128-unit development in East Orange and certification of the project’s Environmental Impact Report, Aug. 5.

The commission’s seal of approval came after two public hearings, wherein some 80 East Orange residents, many of whom were more familiar with the project and the property than the commissioners, pressed for a “no” vote. A handful of project supporters told the commission that the development was a better alternative than the stockpiling of construction waste material that overwhelms the property now. Residents who live next to the dirt and rock repository, enduring its dust and noise, have been assured by developer Milan Capital's consultant Frank Elfend, that the rock/concrete crushing activity will stop if the housing project is approved.

Opponents revisited the flaws in the Environmental Impact Report, the project’s noncompliance with two specific plans, gridlock on Santiago Canyon Road, and the challenges – flooding, hazardous materials, methane gas, land and creek remediation -- of the property itself. Those same conditions were the reasons another residential project on the same site was rejected by the Orange Planning Commission and City Council in 2014.

The only thing that has changed in the last five years is the city’s enthusiasm to approve this project.

Rookies in the big leagues
The planning commission’s 4-1 vote to recommend approval was set in motion early this year when two veteran commissioners, both with extensive land-use experience, were summarily replaced. Commissioners are appointed by city council members and can be removed without explanation.  Councilman Mike Alvarez had appointed Daniel Correa in 2013. Former Mayor Tita Smith had appointed Adrienne Gladson in 2011. Both, familiar with Environmental Impact Reports and prone to independent research to flesh out staff reports, had the respect of the communities they served.   

Alvarez replaced Correa with Richard Martinez in January; Mayor Mark Murphy replaced Gladson with Dave Vasquez soon after that. Neither has any land- use or planning experience to prepare them for, perhaps, the most complicated development project to come before the commission in years.

That left them, along with colleagues Dave Simpson and Ernie Glasgow, dependent on the staff report prepared for the commission, the project description presented by Frank Elfend and the testimony of Milan’s paid experts.  

Eden revisited
The staff report, Elfend and the experts assured commissioners that neither the East Orange General Plan nor the Orange Park Acres Specific Plan carried any weight; that methane gas is contained; the proposed housing would not be flooded; the layers of silt underlying the property could be remediated to prevent liquefaction; traffic impacts would be minimal; and if fire danger dictated that current and new residents must evacuate, they’d have no problem getting out.

After the public hearing and the affirmative vote, both Daniel Correa and Adrienne Gladson said that, based on what they had heard, they would have denied the project.

The commissioners cut through the complicated parameters the development faced, framing the project as a choice between Milan’s existing concrete crushing or Milan’s tract homes. They accepted that details -- who pays for what, an anticipated timeline, who would manage the proposed open space, trails and greenbelt, and when the crushing operation would stop -- would be addressed after the project is approved.  

One man, one vote
Doug Willits was the only commissioner who looked past the either-or of rock crushing vs. development to the needed zoning amendment’s impact on the community. Indeed, the city has always honored the land-use plan that preserves the rural integrity of Orange Park Acres. Until now.  

“I think OPA is special,” Willits said. “Someone likened it to Old Towne, and I think it is. Preservation is important. I don’t like this project because it isn’t OPA. It ignores the equestrian lifestyle. It doesn’t fit. I can’t in good conscience vote ‘yes’ on this.” 

“I’ve learned,” Dave Vasquez remarked, “how special OPA is. How precious it is to Orange.” However, he advised, “Our job as commissioners is to listen to the public, listen to the applicant, read the documents and make a finding.” His focus, he said, was to determine if a project furthers the general plan, meets environmental standards and is good for the community. “It’s projects like this where we have to weigh whether it betters the broader parameters of the general plan.”

Fix-it ticket
Commissioner Dave Simpson reported that he was satisfied that the land use and safety issues raised by the public had been adequately addressed. He dismissed the traffic congestion on Santiago Canyon Road, noting that “the traffic there today is only going to get worse whether this project happens or not.  It’s regional, beyond the city’s control.” He admitted that the project presented a “number of things we’re not sure about” and that the lack of specifics is “concerning.” Even so, he is “excited about the possibilities.”

Richard Martinez, who had said nothing during the entire proceeding, noted that, as a commissioner, he spoke for the people. But, he asked, which people? “When was the last time there was a horse on that property? Maybe 100 years ago there were horses there.” 

He was more concerned, he said, about those directly impacted by the site. “They have health issues, noise, dust and dirt. I have to go with them.”

Ernie Glasgow recalled the previous battles over the defeated Fieldstone project (2003) and the Rio Santiago proposal (2014). “We’re hearing some of the same language today that we heard then,” he acknowledged. “But this is the best project. Shutting down the crushing operation, bringing in trails, open space and restoring the creek outweigh the concerns.”

The city council will consider the project at a future date.

Orange Planning Commission OKs East Orange development