The Orange Planning Commission Tuesday night unanimously recommended that city council approve residential housing on one of the town’s last remaining areas of open space, but not without significant changes to the agreement between the developer and the city.

As city council members watched the proceedings from their homes via the community television channel, the commission sent them the emotionally-charge issue on a 5-0 vote. A crowd of nearly 200 representing both sides of the controversy pressed into the hearing room for the last of three long sessions of public and developer testimony, plus extended debate among the five planning commissioners.

“We’re really pleased,” said developer representative Ken Ryan after the meeting. “Very, very pleased.”

Ryan is a principal in the Irvine architecture and planning company KTGY, which is dealing with the city on behalf of the property owners, Orange resident John Martin and his investment partners.

If approved by the Orange City Council, the developer could build an equestrian-themed project of 39 homes on one-acre sites in Orange Park Acres on the eastern side of town.

The 52-acre Ridgeline site formerly was home to tennis courts, a swimming pool and a nine-hole golf course that residents could pay to use. Opponents of the housing plan argued the city needed to guarantee residents some kind of replacement recreation facilities in return for allowing the property owner and developers to build.

The owner plans to include horse trails that would be open to the public, but not considered park land, according to city staff, because it doesn’t include play areas for young children, picnic tables and other everyday public uses. Adding more residents to the community increases use of existing public parks and developers are required to compensate in some way for the impact.

The developer also plans to donate 3.9 acres that currently holds a horse arena. The developer offered another 3.7 acres, but attached a slew conditions to the city getting this land, including a connection to a nearby high-density residential project called Rio Santiago. The Rio Santiago project hasn’t come before the planning commission yet.

Using the donation of the extra 3.7 acres as a way to tie the Ridgeline and Rio Santiago projects together was strongly opposed by commissioners. It appears like a back-door beginning to approval of the Rio Santiago plan.

Planning commissioners strongly recommended the city council clearly separate the two projects before approving the Ridgeline plan. Planning Commission chairman Fred Whitaker noted that council members were watching the commission meeting on television and would be well-versed in the issues.

After the meeting, Ryan said the company will “take all of their recommendations to heart.” But he stopped short of saying they will specifically change the agreement to drop the link to the high-density project, dubbed “Rio Santiago.” Instead, he said, they will “work on” ways to make the agreement clearer.

The city council is tentatively scheduled to take up the issue at its July 13 meeting.


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