“Elections matter” was Supervisor Todd Spitzer’s message at Tuesday’s meeting of Orange County’s Board of Supervisors where, just before taking over as chairman of the board, Spitzer secured a unanimous vote to initiate the removal of a zoning amendment that could bring controversial plans for a senior living facility in North Tustin to a halt.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County’s plans for a senior residential living facility in unincorporated Santa Ana, otherwise known as North Tustin, has been vehemently opposed by many homeowners at every turn, a battle that has played out in public meetings and court hearings for nearly eight years.

The board’s vote Tuesday, in some respects, reverses a 2011 vote by a different board, who acted at the urging of then-Board Chair Bill Campbell to add senior residential housing to the approved uses for the 7.25 acre lot.

At the time, Campbell, who has deep ties to the Catholic Church, pointed to the need for senior housing in Orange County.

The diocese complained Tuesday that they were not notified about Spitzer’s proposal to remove the zoning amendment.

“The reason we have elections is, elections change public policy. Now that I’m sitting here, I want to reverse the overlay of senior residential housing. I think it was created to the benefit of one property owner,” said Spitzer, who represents the third district where the project resides.

Those against the project cite the negative impacts of increased noise and traffic, and fear that the project would set a precedent for allowing commercial uses on a nearby property.

But the bigger issue at hand, they say, is that the Board ignored stipulations in the 1983 North Tustin Specific Plan, a planning document that prohibits commercial uses and only allows for residential projects or the building of a school or church.

“We’re not opposed to a landowner developing the land for church or school or [single-family] residential,” said Donna Sutton, a resident with FCA.

Sutton gestured to an aerial map of the development, which is surrounded entirely by single-family homes.

“What doesn’t belong there? You just have to look at it to know what doesn’t belong there,” she said.

Richard Nelson, president of a homeowners’ group called the Foothill Communities Association that has opposed the project, said the “real issue” is that the diocese, which participated in the creation of the Specific Plan, didn’t want to follow the rules.

“They wanted to change the rules for themselves,” Nelson said.

Spitzer criticized the previous board for justifying amendments to the entire Specific Plan through the approval of a single project.

“That’s not how we should be doing government business in the county. That’s why you have specific plans; if you’re going to amend them, don’t do it on a one-lot theory,” Spitzer said.

The diocese has argued that the project is a residential project, not a commercial one, and that they have bent over backwards to appease opponents.

They point to changes such as large setbacks from the street; eliminating plans for meal, coffee and haircut services in the building; building a subterranean parking structure to reduce street parking; and adding noise and light restrictions.

Several seniors showed up in support of the project and pointed to senior housing as a growing, and pressing, issue for county leaders to address — Campbell’s point in 2011.

“This is unfair to our seniors, especially those who live in the area. We deserve to be allowed back to our own neighborhood,” said Laura Karam Alfieri, now a resident of Anaheim Hills who wants to return to North Tustin. “It’s heartless and callous at best. Each of you board members took office promising to…represent all people.”

Other supporters of the facility framed the project as a way to allow seniors to live in the same community as their children.

“We can’t exile our seniors because a handful of people don’t want to accomodate them,” said Jim Crookshank, whose parents are residents. “In my opinion, it will have a positive impact. Facilities like this are very quiet, generate less traffic, and if well-designed, are a beautiful addition to the community.”

Board Chair Shawn Nelson said Orange County’s Catholic Diocese was being disingenuous and could have limited the project to a single story if it truly wanted it to move forward.

“The fact of the matter is if the diocese wanted to go forward with a one-story structure they could house all the people. They don’t want to do that — you can make more money in higher density,” Nelson said. “I know this project could accommodate and blend into the neighborhood if you chose…but the only thing that was given was enough to get the votes.”

Ryan Lilyengren, spokesman for the diocese, rejected accusations that the church has been profit-driven in its negotiations for the development.

“Our mission is a a commitment to care for a vulnerable population that we feel doesn’t have adequate services in this part of the county…this is more than money and business — we designed the best facility to take care of seniors,” said Ryan Lilygren, spokesman for the diocese. “The Catholic Church is not a developer.”

Spitzer, however, said that he has been approached by attorneys representing the Catholic diocese who have said the church is now interested in developing single-family homes on the plot, but that they don’t have permission from the Prescott family, which gave the property to the church in 1956.

If the church were invested in the project, Spitzer said, perhaps they would have taken more steps to apply building permits and start developing the site.

He’s not concerned about whether the diocese will initiate legal action against the county for reversing the 2011 vote.

“Join the line,” Spitzer said.

Contact the writer at thyanhvo@gmail.com

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