A heated battle over an Orange Park Acres housing development is headed to the state Supreme Court.
In reviewing the Ridgeline Equestrian Estates case, justices are set to decide whether to uphold or overturn an appeals court ruling that the project can still move forward after voters rejected it last year.
Activists have said the Supreme Court’s ruling would have statewide implications for the authority of city general plans and the right of voters to overturn land use decisions in their community.
“The citizens did everything by the book, and they did what they were supposed to do,” said activist Theresa Sears, pointing to the successful ballot initiative against the project.
“We don’t need to just get rid of 51 acres of recreational open space without a plan,” she added. “It’s just spot zoning, and that just doesn’t work.”
A city spokesman said officials in Orange look forward to the hearing.
“The court made its ruling and will hear the merits of the case,” said spokesman Paul Sitkoff.
The project’s developer, Milan Capital Management, couldn’t be reached for comment.
The case is being pursued by the Orange Park Association and Orange Citizens for Parks and Recreation.
It challenges the Ridgeline development, which would convert one of the city’s last plots of open space into 39 homes.
The 51-acre property had been home to a golf course and tennis courts for 40 years.
Activists say the project is ill-conceived, given that Orange is already lacking in open space and recreational facilities.
“The city currently lacks adequate lands designated for public parks and open space to meet the recreational needs of its residents,” states the city’s general plan. “Park facilities and recreation programs are essential to the health and economic well-being of Orange residents.”
While the National Recreation and Park Association recommends 3 acres of park space per 1,000 residents, Orange has just 1.81.
“According to this recommendation, the City has a current park shortage of approximately 165 acres,” the general plan states.
Developers, meanwhile, have said the project would create a 0.4-acre ride-in equestrian area, two acres of new public trails and a “passive park” open to the public.
For decades, the city’s general plan showed the site as zoned for open space. So in their approval of Ridgeline, the City Council changed the general plan in 2011 to allow for housing on the property.
The two activist groups then succeeded in getting enough signature to put that change on last November’s ballot for voters to weigh in.
But the developers unearthed a document showing that in 1973, the City Council had approved zoning for low-density housing on the property under the Orange Park Acres Plan.
So the city and Milan filed a lawsuit claiming that the project didn’t need the general plan amendment after all.
Superior Court Judge Robert Moss agreed last June, ordering the ballot measure removed and that Milan be allowed to develop homes on the property.
The activists then appealed, calling the Orange Park Acres Plan “an out-of-date subordinate planning document” and asserting that the actual zoning was “open space,” as shown on the city’s General Plan map.
The Court of Appeal ruled for the activists, overturning Moss’ decision and putting the measure back on the ballot.
When it came to a vote last November, most voters in Orange also sided with the activists, rejecting the general plan amendment with 56 percent of the vote.
But an appeals court ruled this July in favor of the city and developer, declaring the project didn’t need the general plan amendment.
“The key precedent established by the court’s opinion is that a city council has the authority to ignore obvious errors in general plan documents when deciding whether projects are consistent with their own general plans,” declared Milan attorney David Watson in a statement at the time.
But community leaders have said the ruling creates dangerous implications for general plans.
“California planning law would have been set back to square one if the appellate court’s decision had been allowed to stand,” Orange Park Association board member Don Bradley asserted in a statement.
“It would create havoc in the state, because at any time they could come up with secret documents,” said Sears.
As for Orange’s general lack of open space, activists said city officials need to think outside the box, come up with a plan and implement it.
“We need to look at it from a global position,” said Sears. “And there’s a lot of opportunity in Orange, and elected officials need to be proactive, instead of just this developer-driven mentality that appears to be what’s driving things.”