Builder Dislikes Conditions for Great Park Neighborhoods

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011 | Last week, Irvine’s Planning Commission approved construction of nearly 5,000 homes around the Orange County Great Park. The approval elicited smiles and applause from those who have been hoping to see the development clear this major hurdle.

But there is one party not happy at all about how the approval has gone: the development manager.

A consultant working with FivePoint Communities, the firm in charge of building the Great Park Neighborhoods project, said the Planning Commission’s approval of the project includes a host of illegal conditions. FivePoint is specifically objecting to requirements recommended by the planning commission that it hire a landscape architect, develop a public transit plan with the city and install electric vehicle charging stations at commercial centers in the development.

“We are strongly urging not to be put in that position — to have to go to a court to find that these conditions imposed tonight by the Planning Commission are not legally imposed,” said Patrick Strader, a consultant to FivePoint Communities, at a recent Planning Commission meeting.

The objections raised before the Planning Commission have some speculating that FivePoint may appeal some of the conditions to the City Council. FivePoint officials couldn’t be reached for comment.

“I believe it’s likely,” said Planning Commissioner Anthony Kuo, who voted against some of the conditions.

Said City Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway: “If FivePoint isn’t happy with the conditions imposed by the Planning Commission, it would seem to me that they would appeal the maps.”

The project has massive implications for the long-term future of the Great Park. The bulk of funding for the park’s construction would come from property tax revenue generated by the Great Park Neighborhoods. Without construction of those neighborhoods, the park’s financing plan over the next few decades would fall apart.

Park leaders are also turning to developers for a solution for the park’s short-term funding issues.

City leaders are negotiating behind the scenes for cash payments from the developer, Heritage Fields El Toro, the Orange County Register reported last month. The payments would be mitigation for denser housing plans and encroachment on a planned Great Park canyon, city officials said in the story.

The new development conditions could be used by city officials as leverage during negotiations for cash payments from the developer, according to a City Hall source.

Strader argued that language in the development agreement bars new conditions unless they are imposed citywide. He also said that the new requirements are illegal because they have no connection with the development’s impact.

At the meeting, Strader reacted with surprise to the new requirements, but Planning Commission Chairwoman Mary-Ann Gaido said she had discussed the conditions with Strader before the meeting. She acknowledged that she did not give Strader a preview of the actual written conditions.

“They certainly were not a surprise to the developer, I can assure you. I gave my entire list of conditions to the developer and to Patrick,” Gaido said.

She also said that she doubted the developer was unhappy with the Planning Commission’s approvals. “I would think their investors are very pleased that they got vested rights to 5,000 new homes and commercial and retail uses. It’s a magnificent site.”

Mayor Sukhee Kang said the frustrations evident at the Planning Commission meetings were part of a “healthy debate.”

“I can understand Patrick was a little frustrated,” Kang said. “I don’t personally take it as a threat.”

As far as how the new conditions might affect negotiations for cash payments to the park, Kang — who sits on a negotiating subcommittee with Councilman Larry Agran — said he couldn’t comment. He said, however, that the $40-million figure reported previously is subject to negotiation.

“The number is still in discussion. It hasn’t been finalized,” Kang said.

City leaders are still waiting to see whether FivePoint will formally object to the new conditions.

“Ultimately, a final decision will be made at the City Council,” Kang said.

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