By Tina Richards
Community opposition to Milan Capital’s plans for a 129-unit housing tract on the 109-acre Sully-Miller property in East Orange continues to echo through neighboring Jamestown, The Reserve, Mabury Ranch and Orange Park Acres.
The parcel currently hosts an abandoned sand and gravel mining operation, and has been used as a dump site for dirt removed from construction sites. Property owner Milan Capital curtailed the dumping activity as a show of “good faith” in 2015. The land and the portion of Santiago Creek that traverses it have long been earmarked as a future park, with restored open space for passive recreation and habitat. That use has been part of the East Orange Community Plan, Orange Park Acres Specific Plan and Santiago Creek Greenbelt Plan for more than 40 years.
Approximately 12 acres north of Santiago Creek were zoned residential in 1993, allowing about 25 homes. Nothing was built at the time and that developer is long gone. The acreage abuts Mabury Ranch and residents of that community who, along with just about everybody else, including Milan, do not want to put housing there.
Gets worse before it gets better
To proceed with its development plans, Milan needs the City of Orange to change a portion of the property’s zoning to residential (r-1-8), which would enable five units per acre. In turn, the residential zoning on the 12 acres north of the creek would revert to open space. While neighbors close to the site are unhappy with its current state, they’ve made it clear to the developer, and to the city, that a zone change and 129 houses are an unacceptable alternative. And they’ve been saying that for the last 15 years.
Following Milan’s failed plan to put a 265-unit senior facility and 130 houses on the property in 2014, the city helped form a liaison committee, comprised of two council members and resident stakeholders. The committee was tasked to work directly with the developer to identify an acceptable project that would preserve the historic park designation, honor the land-use plans, and allow some housing within the zoning constraints.
A year ago, the committee introduced a plan, Alternative E, that would rezone 25 acres south of the creek for development and change the 12 acres on the north side from residential to open space. The plan respected the mandates of the city’s land-use documents. Alternative E countered the developer’s proposed Plans A through D, which were variations on a higher-density housing scheme (then 150) that the community did not support.
When Milan’s Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for its proposed project was released in March, Alternative E was ignored. A Jamestown resident responded, “Alternative E submitted by the city-appointed liaison committee should be analyzed. This plan is in closer alignment with current zoning, and would require less earth movement as a savings to the developer and environment. It would also be welcomed by the surrounding communities.”
An East Orange resident agreed: “Why did they choose not to analyze Alternative E, as presented by the city-appointed liaison committee? I would ask that the city uphold its existing land use on the site, specifically the 1973 OPA Plan and the 1975 East Orange Community Plan.”
The liaison committee itself wrote a letter noting, “The developer has no existing right to develop Sully-Miller in the intensive manner that is being proposed. In 1993, the city council approved a subdivision map for this parcel providing for 25 homes. In 2003, Fieldstone proposed building 18 homes on this parcel north of the creek. There may be room for debate and/or compromise whether the existing entitlement for the site is the 25 homes approved in 1993, the 18 homes proposed by Fieldstone in 2003, or a greater number of units permitted under the existing zoning. However, none of these numbers add up to 129 homes. Under no circumstances should the transferred rights exceed the existing entitlement for that site.”
Open and shut
A Mabury Ranch homeowner, one of many who responded to the DEIR, wrote, “A large part of the motivation for purchasing in Mabury Ranch ... was that we liked the zoning and open spaces that were protected in East Orange.” Another stressed, “I do not want this proposed vague development on what should remain open space.”
Residents of The Reserve shared a similar thought. “We moved to OPA to own horses, enjoy chickens, pigs and other livestock,” one homeowner advised. “The 4-H program is alive and well here, and represented at our Orange County Fair, winning blue ribbons for our goats, pigs and cows. This is only possible, due to the OPA plan.”
Orange Park Acres residents sent in about 56 letters, all of them urging support for the existing land-use plans and rejecting 129 units. Correspondents from Santiago Hills, Old Towne and other parts of the city concurred in another slew of email messages. Respect Orange, a resident organization formed to protect the city’s character, summed it up, “Most importantly, this project is not in line with the motto of our city, ‘A Slice of Old Towne Charm,’ as it reduces the charm of OPA and the surrounding communities and goes against existing land use specific plans.”
Residents restate reasons they oppose East Orange project; developer isn’t listening
Alternative E, a community-supported plan for development on the Sully-Miller site, adheres to the property’s existing zoning, safeguards Santiago Creek and wildlife habitat, offers community recreation opportunities, and allows for a residential enclave. The property owner is ignoring it.