Signs put up by opponents of a Chevron plan to build 760 homes on a former oil field. They are located at the corner of Euclid Street and Bastanchury Road. (Photo by: Tracy Wood)

Thursday, April 28, 2011 | In the coming weeks, two North Orange County cities will decide the fate of some of their last remaining tracts of open space.

In Orange, the City Council will begin hearings in May on a proposal to develop a 52-acre former nine-hole golf course into one-acre equestrian estates.

And in Fullerton, Chevron is planning 760-homes in the city’s northwest corner. The City Council has already approved the settlement lawsuit filed by Chevron regarding the development, and will vote on whether to approve the project itself May 17.

Both cities have a substantial shortage of public parkland, and both city councils are facing strong opposition from community groups who want them to scrap the development plans and instead to vote to preserve open space.

The development proposals bring to the fore the decades-long battle between private land ownership rights and the ongoing needs of those who will live in the community after the developers have departed.

“For years,” said Orange Mayor Carolyn Cavecche, “open space was not an emphasis” of city leaders.

As a result, the town with a population of about 143,000, has less than two acres of parkland for every 1,000 people, far short of its goal of three acres per thousand.

Cavecche said the community relies on county parks like Irvine Regional Park, Santiago Oaks and Peters Canyon for its open space. Within the city boundaries, she said, the goal is to increase the amount of land that can be used for soccer, Little League games and other activities.

“What we have a shortage of,” said Cavecche, “is ‘active’ parks. We’re in the process of playing catch-up.”

The problems facing Orange are mirrored in Fullerton. Both, in the jargon of developers, are “under-parked” communities.

The Role of Developers

In 1965, then-Assemblyman John P. Quimby (D-San Bernardino) successfully proposed legislation that required parkland to be set aside when new subdivisions were approved. If a developer didn’t want to provide land, the city could agree to a fee instead that would be used to build new recreational facilities, but not to pay salaries.

The Quimby Act has been helpful to newer communities, said Peter Detweiler, chief consultant to the state Senate Governance and Finance Committee.

But towns like Orange and Fullerton that experienced huge post-World War II building booms up into the 1960s, already had given up most of their potential parkland.

“The Quimby Act is a good tool,” said Detweiler, “but it doesn’t work very well in older areas.”

Today, to head toward planning goals that include increased outdoor recreational space, both communities rely on things like joint-use agreements with school districts to use playgrounds in the afternoons and weekends.

The New Development Proposals

In Fullerton, the Save Coyote Hills backers have fought for years to turn the Chevron land into a public park.

The City Council voted last year to reject the development project and Chevron sued. Earlier this month the new City Council majority voted to accept an agreement to settle the suit, but the settlement is contingent on the council voting next month to approve the development plans that were turned down a year ago.

Opponents of the Chevron project include the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council who argue the planned project, among other things, hasn’t addressed potential health issues like methane on the former oil field.

The project’s environmental impact report needs to be updated, Sierra Club representative Diane Bonanno told the council earlier this month. “The EIR is faulty,” she said.

The Orange City Council also is expected to begin discussions next month on the development project proposed by developer JMI.

Tom Davidson, president of the Orange Park Acres homeowners’ association, has been trying to convince the city council to block development of the homes or require substantial public open space.

“We would like the council to at least mitigate the loss” of the open area, said Davidson.

The city of Orange, he notes, is 164 acres short of the space it needs to meet its goals for public parkland and the general area of the planned project is some of the last open space left in town.

When the project was before the Orange Planning Commission last year, the hearings were jammed, primarily with opponents. But the developer also turned out supporters.

When asked what he thinks the council will do, Davidson replied, “vote against us. My guess is they’re going to vote 5-0 in favor of him (the developer.)

Cavecche said before she was elected to the City Council in 2001, she served on a task force that tried to correct the mistakes of past leaders and create goals for park space.

Even so, she said, the 52 acres now in dispute is a “privately-held piece of land.

“The city can’t purchase that piece of land,” she said. “There’s no way (financially) we could do that.”

As for what’s likely to happen?

“I’m still looking at the project and I haven’t made my decision yet,” she said. “My anticipation is there will be many meetings. It will not be a one meeting issue.”

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