Amid Wildfire Concerns, Proposed Housing Project Near Yorba Linda is Put on Hold

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A hotly contested housing development proposed for the hills above Yorba Linda was temporarily put on hold Tuesday, after a well-organized group of residents said, among other concerns, that lives would be put at even greater risk when the area faces another wildfire.

At the recommendation of county supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer, supervisors ended up postponing a decision on zoning and general plan changes for the 340-home Esperanza Hills project until June 2.

“I do have great concerns about this project. Great concerns,” said Spitzer, whose district includes Yorba Linda and the proposed project site.

While he congratulated residents on their presentation, Spitzer said his reasoning for the delay was a lack of analysis about impacts from about another proposed project next door, Cielo Vista, as well as the need for the Yorba Linda City Council to weigh in on the project.

“There needs to be a full blown discussion with the City Council” before the project is approved by the county, Spitzer said.

At the same time, supervisors did approve the project’s environmental impact report, which is expected to end up in court.

Residents opposed to the project will likely file a lawsuit challenging the environmental report and shift their concentration to the City Council, according to Claire Schlotterbeck, who helped organize many of the residents.

Such a lawsuit, if deemed reasonable by a judge, could hold up the project for months or even years.

The delay came after a highly organized group of residents gave a presentation that featured graphics and photos to illustrate their points.

With each speaker limited to two minutes of comments, the 34 residents spoke back-to-back, highlighting concerns about wildfire evacuations, earthquakes, landslides, noise and other issues.

The biggest concern was wildfires, which last swept through the proposed site’s land during the 2008 Freeway Complex Fire.

Roads were already clogged with traffic as people tried to evacuate in 2008, residents said, adding that Esperanza Hills would only make that gridlock worse by adding 340 homes uphill.

“Adding several hundred vehicles to an unchanged, virtually impossible evacuation route…violates common sense,” said Yorba Linda resident Rob Bartels, a retired law enforcement officer.

Approving the project “is to gamble the lives of every man woman and child who resides in northeast Yorba Linda,” he added. “Vote no and sleep well at night.”

County officials, meanwhile, didn’t make firm guarantees that everyone would be able to safely evacuate in the event of wildfire.

But they said their modeling shows that officials have the resources to promptly evacuate the area.

Within an hour, the county would be able to coordinate enough vehicles to evacuate over 4,300 people, with all 2,000 vehicles in the area able to be evacuated within 1.5 hours, according to Capt. Bob Peterson of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

Another concern expressed by residents was the project site’s history of landslides.

While the environmental impact report only shows two previous landslides on the property, a map from the city of Yorba Linda shows seven, according to resident Diana Kanne.

125 proposed home sites lie on top of the previous landslide areas, she said.

“How do you remediate a landslide you have not acknowledged?” asked Kanne.

The project’s lead developer, meanwhile, said his team has taken great efforts to address all safety concerns that have arisen, including regarding fire resistance, evacuations and landslides.

“There’s an engineering solution for everything that you come up with,” said developer Doug Wymore.

The residents’ presentation had an effect on Spitzer, who called their efforts “amazing.”

“This is probably one of the finest presentations I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Spitzer.

Other supervisors weren’t so impressed.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson took issue with the residents’ attorney saying the supervisors’ litmus test is whether they’d willing to move their families into the new neighborhood.

Given that the proposed homes would be more fire resistant, Nelson repeatedly asked a fire official about whether the new neighborhood would be more at risk of catching fire than the existing homes where residents live.

“Is this new development putting these people at far greater risk?” Nelson asked.

“From a pure construction standpoint, no, it does not put them at greater risk,” replied Deputy Fire Marshall Pete Bonano of the Orange County Fire Authority.

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, meanwhile, asked that county staff look into requiring audio sirens in the neighborhood to warn of evacuations.

The Yorba Linda City Council will likely discuss the Esperanza Hills project at an upcoming meeting.  Their next meeting is scheduled for this coming Tuesday, March 17 at 6:30 p.m.

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