OPA resident and member of the Sully-Miller liaison committee Tom Davidson summarizes the high – and low – points of the Draft Environmental Impact Report released by the property owner. Public comments are due by April 9.
By Tina Richards
The new version of a proposed development on the Sully-Miller property in East Orange is a non-starter in the opinion of residents who have been challenging inappropriate development on the site for a decade.
The 109-acre property nestled between Santiago Canyon Road and Santiago Creek is the site of a former sand and gravel operation, and was used as a repository for dirt from construction projects after developer Milan Capital bought it in 2008. The dirt dumping has been curtailed, but the entire property, including the creek, has been abused and untended for years.
Milan Capital sought city approvals for a senior living facility and single-family housing totaling 395 units in 2014, but was rebuffed. It now wants to build tract homes on the property, which will require a zone change and revoke the mandates of two land-use plans that govern it.
The project’s Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) was the topic of discussion at a community meeting held by the Orange Park Association, March 21.
No place for homes
Residents note that Milan’s proposed 129 homes are less than the 395-plus units rejected by the Orange City Council in 2014, but far more than the 25 homes north of the creek that were approved in 1993, but never got built. The recent proposal would still require the Orange Park Acres Specific Plan (1973) and the East Orange Community Plan to be voided on that acreage. Milan is asking the city to rezone 26 acres in the OPA plan and 14 acres in the East Orange plan to low density residential.
Both of those plans (as well as the 1971 Santiago Creek Greenbelt plan) designate the property as open space. The OPA plan would, however, allow one dwelling per acre if it were rezoned for housing. That density is in line with the 25 homes permitted on 12 acres north of Santiago Creek.
A liaison committee, comprised of residents from OPA (Tom Davidson, Theresa Sears), Mabury Ranch (Stephanie Lesinski, Nick Lall), The Reserve (Addison Adams, Dan Martin), and city council members Mark Murphy and Kim Nichols, has been working with a Milan representative to identify an acceptable project. The committee recommended transferring the development rights behind the creek to a corner of the property next to Santiago Canyon Road. That would give Milan the 25 units it is entitled to, preserve the in-place land-use plans, and keep the remainder of the property as open space.
That alternative was never seriously considered by Milan, which continues to press for a zone change opposed by a community that successfully fought another development (189 units) in 1999, and the 395-unit attempt four years ago. Instead, Milan is asking for a zoning designation that would permit two to six dwellings per acre, translating into a maximum 240.
Bait and switch
“Don’t be fooled by the 129 units,” liaison committee member Theresa Sears told the audience. “The zoning could allow up to 240 units, and that’s what the DEIR analysis should be covering. No matter what the developer claims, the 129 is meaningless. You have to assume 240 units because that’s what will be entitled.”
The document analysis falls short of more than just 111 houses. Its traffic study is suspect, maps are missing or incorrect, mitigation measures incomplete, and details regarding trail, open space and Santiago Creek management and maintenance absent. The builder estimates it will import 700,000 cubic yards of dirt and remove 400,000 cubic yards of silt. Tom Davidson did the math. “That’s 73,333 truck trips,” he said. “Or 200 trucks a day, every day, for one year. None of that is reflected in the DEIR traffic data. The average number of daily trips studied is wrong.”
There is no tentative tract map. Therefore, liaison committee reviewers point out, there is no way to analyze the aesthetics, impacts of noise, lighting, massing or air quality. The DEIR states “no mitigation is required,” but if there’s no defined project, there’s no way to determine what needs or doesn’t need mitigation. The maps that do appear are inconsistent with those contained in previous city staff reports or other public documents. For example, says Sears, “the open space defined in the 1999 project was 26 acres. Now it’s shown as 16. In this DEIR, Santiago Creek has changed, the boundaries for the specific plans have changed. The maps need to reflect the proper boundaries.”
Devil’s in no details
The proposal makes generic statements about open space, the creek corridor, and a network of trails, but offers no details about who will manage or maintain them. The builder is setting aside funds for landscaping and trails, but does not indicate who will take care of them. The city? The county? The homeowners? Santiago Creek, it says, will be “preserved and protected.” But there is no word about how or by whom.
Further, the report notes that the project may create a significant hazard to the public or the environment, but its stated mitigation measures are limited to building and grading permits for the houses. There is no discussion of remediation of the hazardous materials left by the mining operation that existed there for decades, other than the removal of “bad soils.” The extent of the “bad soils” is not disclosed.
There is, however, some good news. Tom Davidson told meeting attendees that Milan has finally agreed to pay the community’s attorney fees for the Ridgeline lawsuit that was decided by the California Supreme Court in 2015. After finding in favor of Orange citizens, the court ordered Milan to pay the prevailing party’s attorney fees, but it has balked until now.
Revised housing plan for Sully-Miller ignores neighbors' concerns and snubs land-use mandates