August 2017

By Tina Richards

A proposed senior living facility opposed by neighbors because it violates the North Tustin Specific Plan (NTSP), and beaten back twice by the Foothill Communities Association (FCA), has reappeared as a smaller version of itself that, this time, might stick.

The reincarnated Clearwater Senior Living Facility was unveiled at a public meeting hosted by Supervisor Todd Spitzer, July 19.  It has the approval of the Catholic Diocese of Orange (landowner), the developer, Spitzer, the FCA board and litigation committee, and the Prentiss family, who gave the seven-acre property on Newport Avenue to the church 50 years ago.

“It’s not perfect,” Spitzer told a skeptical audience, “but it’s better than what you had before.” 

A whale of a tale
What went before was, in 2011, the Springs at Bethsaida, a two-story, 250-ft.-long, 153-unit senior and assisted living facility.  The community opposed it because it did not adhere to the NTSP, which restricts development to single-family housing and disallows commercial activity.  The property itself was zoned for a church or a school because the Prentiss family had donated it to “further the mission of the Catholic church.”  If rezoned for multi-family housing, the Springs, the church held, would be home to retired clergy and include a chapel.

Despite months of community protest, public comments at county hearings, and pleas to maintain the integrity of the specific plan, the Board of Supervisors, led by then-Supervisor Bill Campbell, agreed to amend the NTSP with a “senior residential housing” overlay and approved the project.

The FCA sued and won in the lower court, with the presiding judge calling the senior housing overlay “illegal spot zoning.” The diocese/developer appealed that decision, and won in the appellate court.  The higher court found that the overlay was indeed spot zoning, but that it wasn’t illegal because the supervisors had the discretion to change it.  

A promise kept
When Spitzer assumed Campbell’s third district seat in 2012, he promised the North Tustin community he would do what he could to restore the integrity of the NTSP.  In 2015, he succeeded in getting the overlay amendment reversed and the development entitlements rescinded.

The diocese subsequently sued the county for reversing its entitlements.  During a mandatory settlement talk between the parties earlier this year, the diocese agreed to drop its lawsuit if Spitzer could facilitate an acceptable compromise with the FCA board and litigation committee.  

The result is the Clearwater Senior Living facility, a single-story, 100-unit complex, buffered by eight-foot-tall landscaping. It, too, will house a chapel. The former “senior housing” overlay is now “residential care facility.”  

In addition, Clearwater will spend $850,000 to design and build a three-acre passive park at the corner of Newport and Crawford Canyon. 

Double or nothing
Spitzer emphasized that what was being presented at that meeting was just a start, that there were still details to resolve and community input welcomed.  “It’s not take it or leave it,” he said, but stressed that the diocese lawsuit was still a factor. “The lawsuit is the river card,” he explained, using a poker analogy. “We know what cards we’re holding.  The development was entitled, the specific plan amended.  You sued.  You won.  They appealed and they won.  The court ruled that spot zoning was legal.  I was able to get the entitlements reversed, but just barely, it was a three to two vote.” 

“If the lawsuit continues,” he added, “the diocese might lose and end up with nothing.  But if it wins, its original entitlements will be reinstated and it will build the two-story facility that you don’t want.  You can take the risk and let the lawsuit play out.  But, based on the court’s ruling that spot zoning is legal, it’s a big risk.”

“A good deal,” litigation committee member Ron King told the crowd, “is when everyone walks away from the table a little mad.”

Residents at the meeting were more than a little mad.  Many had written personal checks to fund the litigation that they hoped would preserve their specific plan.  Others live next door to the site and are alarmed at the expected traffic, parking, noise and overall disruption the project will introduce.

Won the battles, lost the war
“I’m offended,” one said, “that you are throwing a little green space at us to put in a commercial entity.”  

“I live next door,” said another.  “I put a lot of money into opposing it.  I’m going to bear the impacts of this project, but no one has talked to me.”

“We’re talking to you now,” Spitzer said.  “That’s why we’re here.”  The supervisor noted that residents’ concerns about traffic, parking and impacts to Newport Avenue would be addressed.  “But,” he said, “you’re between a rock and a hard place due to a previous board decision.”  

The project still has to go before the North Tustin Advisory Committee, the county planning commission and the Board of Supervisors.  There will be opportunities for residents to challenge the details. The big loser, however, is the North Tustin Specific Plan.  Created in 1983 to ensure future development was compatible with the community, it has become a toothless document that can be “amended” to suit the needs of a builder by a willing county legislator and the court system.

 “I know there are people who are upset with me as a result of this decision,” Bill Campbell said  in 2011, “but I hope five or 10 years from now, you’ll say it was a good one.”

Twice defeated North Tustin project is back