Community Editorial: Sustainable Communities Strategy

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At first blush, the Madrona housing proposal in Brea might look like any other. It’s a 162-unit development of single-family homes that will sit on 367 acres.

But it represents a tipping point.

And it’s only one of many similar proposals that are pushing development boundaries all over Orange County.

As the Brea City Council opens hearings on Madrona on Tuesday, council members and the public should see the project for what it actually is: more sprawl development.

It’s on virgin hillside land abutting Chino Hills State Park on the fringes of Brea. It runs counter to the Sustainable Communities Strategy that Orange County — and Brea itself — adopted in April 2012.

What is the Sustainable Communities Strategy?

It flows from California’s landmark greenhouse gas reduction law, which requires cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. The Southern California Association of Governments, in response to the law, set greenhouse gas transportation reduction targets for the region at 9% by 2020 and 16% by 2035, and in a multiyear effort involving stakeholders across the region, established the Sustainable Communities Strategy.

The Strategy lays out many ways to reduce vehicle miles driven to achieve the mandated greenhouse gas reductions and at the same time build livable, vibrant and sustainable communities for Orange County — even in the face of expected population growth of 4 million over the next 25 years.

(Click here to read the Sustainable Communities Strategy.)

These “smart land-use strategies” encourage maximizing use of existing facilities and avoiding or limiting impacts to open space that contain important natural resources and habitat. The strategies also support “infill” housing and redevelopment, mixed-use development and walkability of communities, improving the jobs to housing ratio and promoting land-use patterns that offer alternatives to single-occupant auto use. These strategies also have the benefit of reducing pollution and improving health.

The Sustainable Communities Strategy doesn’t propose a wholesale change to Southern California’s developed areas; existing stable residential neighborhoods are expected to remain the way they are today. Rather, the strategy promotes new ways of developing new neighborhoods and revitalizing old ones to give Orange County residents a variety of lifestyle choices.

But Madrona doesn’t fit the bill for any of these modern planning strategies. It’s dangerous too. The tract would be situated on hills prone to landslides and smack in the middle of a historic wildland fire corridor. Surely Madrona violates the fundamental principle of protecting natural habitat and resources that are critical for environmental and public health. It will destroy more than 1,300 oak and walnut trees and bulldoze virgin land.

Likewise, Cielo Vista and Esperanza Hills, also in the binge of proposals under consideration, fail to make the grade. Those tracts are on virtually undeveloped county land that Yorba Linda is anticipated to annex. Cielo Vista proposes 112 homes on 84 hillside acres that support natural habitat. Esperanza Hills proposes 340 homes on 469 hillside acres bordering a state park.

Adding more to the list, Mission Viejo recently approved Skyridge, a development next to natural habitat on previously unincorporated county parcels that will be annexed to Mission Viejo, expanding its boundaries. And SaddleCrest, though currently in litigation, is an isolated tract in unincorporated rural Trabuco Canyon on undeveloped land far from services and transportation hubs and without current infrastructure. If SaddleCrest’s approval stands, we can expect more developments like it in the canyon areas.

All of these development proposals fly in the face of sustainable development strategies. And they are being made against a backdrop of burning Southern California hillsides and an official state declaration of drought emergency. It would be reckless to ignore the fact that these developments will require vast amounts of water where virtually no water is being used today.

Climate change is occurring, and it’s having severe negative impacts that cannot be denied. If we’re serious about greenhouse gas reduction and, importantly, sustainability and protection of resources and quality of life for the next generations, projects like Madrona, Cielo Vista and Esperanza Hills should not go forward.

Instead of blithely approving these outmoded development plans, it’s time for elected officials — the ones with authority to say yes or no to these projects — to scrutinize them according to the sustainable development tenets that the region signed on to. Will these officials have the courage and foresight to reject these proposals, or is the Sustainable Communities Strategy just a meaningless document?

Local jurisdictions can use creative tools, like transferring development rights to appropriate locations elsewhere, to keep the valuable and sensitive open space undisturbed while providing economic fairness to landowners and developers. Many California cities and counties are already doing this.

We have virtually no chance of meeting our target greenhouse gas reductions or creating a desirable, livable Orange County for the long term if land-use decisions are going to be made with little or no regard for the adopted strategies of building sustainable communities and reducing vehicle miles driven. Rather, our precious open space will be consumed forever and we’ll be living in isolated island communities, far from work or services, traveling long distances on traffic-choked highways and dealing more and more with the negative impacts of climate change.

That would be a colossal failure on our part.

Gloria Sefton is a Voice of OC Community Editorial Board member and a co-founder of the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy.

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