Activists, Developer Gear Up for Housing Battle in Orange

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A key public hearing on another controversial housing tract proposal in East Orange was suddenly delayed Monday night after two planning commissioners publicly recused themselves from the issue and a third was reported to be ill.

Planning Commission Chairman Bill Steiner, who is also a former county supervisor, publicly announced he used to work for the developer of the 395-unit Rio Santiago project.

This proposed housing project would be built just north of Santiago Canyon Road, between Cannon Street and Santiago Oaks Regional Park.

As Monday night’s hearing was set to start, dozens of residents on both sides of the issue packed the room, filling the seats and lining the walls. Many wore colorful stickers to show support or opposition.

But just as the meeting was kicking off, Steiner announced that he was recusing himself because he had worked with the developer.

Steiner said that in his role as a public affairs consultant, he had a “past professional relationship with a member of the project’s team.”

Another commissioner, Bill Cathcart, recused himself because he lives near the site.

Commissioner Daniel Correa was absent. Attendees were told he was ill.

Because a quorum of at least three commissioners must be present to vote, remaining commissioners decided to postpone the hearing to Jan. 20 at 7 p.m.

The postponement wasn’t announced until dozens of residents showed up to the meeting.

The developer, Milan Capital Management, is proposing to build single family homes and senior housing on a former sand and gravel mine known as Sully Miller.

After the postponement, the project’s chief planner said his team has spent six years gathering “good input” from project supporters and opponents.

Ken Ryan, a principal with the architecture and planning firm KTGY, described it as an open-space recreational and residential project with new public trails to connect to the area’s trail network.

The housing would also have “significant setbacks” from Santiago Canyon Road, and two traffic signals would be installed, he added.

Local residents with the Orange Park Association, meanwhile, are steadfastly opposing the project, calling it “high-density housing” that would violate the area’s specific plans, increase traffic and cause potential health hazards from being next to a landfill that emits methane gas.

“The community is ready to take this on,” said activist Theresa Sears, adding that there’s “lots of experience here.”

Activists said the vast majority of the land is zoned for recreational open space and are calling for the developer to build only homes on the 20 acres of 168 that are zoned as residential.

This isn’t the first time Milan and the activists have gone head-to-head.

Another Milan project in the area, Ridgeline Equestrian Estates, is headed to the state Supreme Court in a case where activists said the right of voters to overturn land use decisions is at stake.

In 2012, voters overturned a general plan amendment that paved the way for the Ridgeline development.

But the developer unearthed a 1973 city document that ultimately persuaded a Superior Court judge that the developer didn’t need any zoning changes, making the ballot vote irrelevant.

An appeals court agreed.

Most recently, the state Supreme Court has agreed to take up the case.

Correction: Due to editing, a previous version of this story gave the incorrect impression that the nature of the conflict that Orange Planning Commissioner Bill Steiner presented when he recused himself from a vote on the proposed Rio Santiago development project was the same as, or very similar to, a situation involving former Orange Planning Commissioner Matt Cunningham and another development project.

Steiner recused himself because he previously worked for the developers of Rio Santiago. In June 2010, Cunningham voted on the Ridgeline project, another proposed residential development in the city. In February 2011, he left the planning commission. According to Cunningham, in April of that year he went to work for the developers of the Ridgeline project. However, unlike in Steiner’s case, Cunningham did not have a legal conflict at the time the project came before the planning commission.

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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