Members of the Orange Planning Commission raised a series of pointed questions Monday night about a proposal to build single-family homes and senior housing on a former sand and gravel mine.
Commissioner Adrienne Gladson noted that the Rio Santiago project has eight “significant and unavoidable impacts” identified in its official environmental report, more than any other project known to be approved by the city, according to staff.
“I think that’s something we’ll have to weigh,” replied Gladson, later calling it “very challenging to overcome.”
Facing an 11 p.m. meeting cutoff, planning commissioners postponed the rest of their questions and decision to Wednesday, Feb. 19.
The project would convert the former Sully Miller mine, which is just south of Santiago Creek in east Orange, into a housing development for hundreds of residents. Sports facilities and nature trails would also be built.
The housing would comprise up to 130 single-family homes and a mixture of 265 homes, condos and assisted-living beds for seniors.
The land’s owners, Milan Capital Management and JMI Real Estate, have said it would enhance the area by using aesthetically pleasing buildings and setting aside most of the land for open space, recreation facilities and trails.
Monday night’s hearing was the first time the public heard what the planning commissioners think about it.
Gladson said she was “struggling with” the lack of information about the implications of removing the site from the Orange Park Acres and East Orange specific plans. Those plans designate much of the land as “Santiago Creek Greenbelt Plan” or “Santiago Creek Greenbelt and Regional Park.”
“I need the light of all of the information” of how that would affect other properties, Gladson said.
That was a key question for Gladson, given that the planning commission is responsible for telling the City Council whether the project’s environmental impact report is adequate.
Commissioner Pat Buttress was also concerned about a lack of a comprehensive fundraising plan for the YMCA, which has been touted as running the recreation facilities at the project.
The Y’s involvement is “pretty much up in the air,” Buttress said.
Ken Ryan, a representative of the project’s landowner, replied that a fundraising plan is in the works.
Commissioner Daniel Correa said he’s concerned about the fact that residents would have to pay a fee to use the recreational facilities.
Gladson also noted that the project’s neighbors in Orange Park Acres have been known to sue, saying she’s “very concerned about there being an adequate” environmental impact report.
One of those cases, involving a project by the same landowner, is now before the state Supreme Court.
Planning commissioners weighed in after hearing from 22 public speakers in addition to the more than 40 who spoke last week. This time, 16 speakers opposed the project and six supported it.
Christine Rosenow said the developer’s claims of meeting many times with residents should be examined more carefully.
“In reality they have met over and over with the same groups,” such as a small group in the Mayberry Ranch neighborhood, Rosenow said.
Mayberry resident Frank Lesinski said he’s lived in the neighborhood for 18 months but was never asked to meet with the developer.
Ryan — a principal of KTGY, the planning firm representing the landowner — said such claims are simply not true. “We haven’t excluded anyone in this process,” he said.
Many opponents said they want the developer to stick to the Orange Park Acres and East Orange specific plans.
“When a developer wants to extinguish those plans … a red flag goes up,” said Rosenow.
Dan Graupensperser said the plans were carefully crafted by the city and residents to preserve a “lifestyle, property values, local environment and a way of life.”
“This developer wants to throw that out. Years of planning and work,” said Orange Park Acres resident Don Bradley.
Another OPA resident, Sierra Scolaro, said she was “appalled” that the Planning Commission “is even considering breaking the promises” of those plans.
“What was true in 1971 of the need to preserve the environment is tenfold today. There is no going back” to open space after homes are built, said Scolaro, a 16-year old junior at Villa Park High School.
Ryan, meanwhile, said it’s time to move on from those plans. “These plans are not sacred. Things have changed,” he said.
If the housing isn’t approved, he added, the sand and gravel operations would continue for decades.
“What’s occurring out there today could be occurring for the next 40 years,” Ryan said.
Other residents gave a strong endorsement of the project, saying it’s the best opportunity to create new trails and recreation areas along that portion of Santiago Creek.
Neighbor Sue Obermayer said the project would get rid of an eyesore industrial operation and “offers a variety of recreational opportunities beyond the usual team sports.”
“I myself would use such a facility,” she added.
Mayberry Ranch resident and YMCA board member Keith Heisler called it a “tremendous opportunity” to expand programs and services for the surrounding community.
“Rio [has] proposed, as part of their plan, the kind of retirement community we desperately need,” said Orange Park Acres resident Rose Ellen Cunningham.
Meanwhile, an environmentally-minded urban planner criticized the project as “100-percent car-centric” and said new housing should be close to amenities.
“We need places where people can walk. We need a community [where] they can go get lunch, go see a movie,” said Jack Eidt of Wild Heritage Planners.
The project’s fate is ultimately in the hands of the Orange City Council, which can approve it or send the landowner back to the drawing board.
Ahead of that decision, the Planning Commission is set to ask more questions of staff and the developer and decide whether to recommend the project for council approval.
Correction: A previous version of this article had incorrect figures for the project's supporters and opponents among public speakers. We regret the error.