Petition to place dubious development approvals on November ballot weighs in with 13,000 signatures

Petitioners shared camaraderie, along with mascot Little Bear, in front of the Orange City Hall before delivering boxes containing over 13,000 signatures to the clerk’s office.  The petitions ask that city council approvals of a housing development be placed on the November ballot to allow voters to judge. Photo by Tony Richards

January 2020

By Tina Richards

Orange citizens intent on rescinding the city council’s approval of The Trails at Santiago Creek, a controversial housing development on the Sully-Miller site, needed 7,001 voter signatures to get the referendum issue on the ballot next November. They gathered 13,192.

The almost-double number of signatures provides plenty of padding to ensure that the required 7,001—10 percent of registered voters in Orange — will be certified by the registrar of voters. During the certification process, any number of signatures may be disqualified. Signers must be registered voters and live in the city. Handwriting must be legible and signatures match what the registrar has on file.   

The signed petitions were turned into the city clerk’s office Dec. 4 and transported to the registrar the following day. The registrar has 30 days to certify the signatures.

Hit the ground running
Thirty days is what petitioners had to collect the needed number of signatures. The city council approved a General Plan amendment and zone change, certified the Environmental Impact Report and signed a development agreement with investor Milan Capital on Oct. 22. The approvals were given over the objections of scores of residents who repeatedly called the project’s flaws and lack of details to the city’s attention. Citizens were prepared to launch the signature-gathering for a referendum immediately following the council’s decision. But Mayor Mark Murphy did not sign the resolution formalizing the approvals for almost two weeks. The 30-day clock, therefore, did not start ticking until Nov. 4.

“We talked to 13,000 Orange voters,” petitioner Katrina Kirkeby reported. “We now know what’s on people’s minds more than the city council does. It was surprising how many people are fed up with Orange city government. They have different issues, different concerns, but many believe that the city council doesn’t listen to them.”

A citywide stake
The 180 volunteer signature gatherers were listening -- and also apparently inspiring others to take action. “I’d be knocking on doors in a neighborhood,” petitioner Laurel Maldonado pointed out, “and after explaining what we were doing, the person would say, ‘give me a petition. I’ll get signatures in the rest of my neighborhood.’ And they would. I can’t tell you how many extra volunteers turned in signed petitions.”

“The people of Orange are great,” petitioner Michelle Gregory agrees. “They get it. They understand that the council’s decision affects the entire city, not just East Orange. 

“They understand that long standing land-use planning should not be arbitrarily thrown out to benefit a developer. They recognize that their elected officials are not looking out for them, but catering to private interests who made a bad investment and care only about their bottom line.”

The signature drive was complicated by a series of mailers sent to voters by Milan Capital. The mailers described the petitioners as “special interest elitists,” who sought to deprive Orange residents of parks and open space. The fliers did not explain that the “elitists” lived throughout Orange and represented the majority of their neighbors.  

The ruse to confuse
The mailed material also neglected to mention that the “parks and open space” were promised, but not planned. Who will clean up the mounds of construction waste presently overwhelming the site, and specifically how it will be done is not part of Milan’s pitch. The investor agrees to put in trails and some amenities once someone else restores Santiago Creek and its surroundings.  

Milan also claimed that approving its development would close the sand and gravel operation now overrunning the property (and its immediate neighbors), but didn’t disclose that it was responsible for creating the eyesore in the first place. 

It also omitted any reference to a timeline, which could be up to 15 years.

Milan’s postal deluge might have swayed some voters, but not all of them. Its campaign to convince voters to remove their names from the petition harvested just 17 rescinders. The final offering, a sampling of nasty social media messages with expletives muted with asterisks,  just made people mad.

Mud was a dud
“Those messages, if they were even real, were not from us,” petitioner Sharon Mule said. “We all signed code of ethics agreements and understood the need to be courteous, especially to people who did not want to sign.”

“That last mailer was the last straw,” signer Nick Mitsch asserted. “It was out of line and uncalled for. When I saw it, my first reaction was ‘give me a petition. I want to sign it.’”

Once the signatures are certified by the registrar of voters, the city council can choose to repeal its approvals, or place the issue on the November ballot to let voters decide if the city should change the General Plan to accommodate Milan Capital and its investors.