Orange County Supervisors could reverse a 2011 amendment to allow the construction of a senior living facility in North Tustin, drawing sharp criticism from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, which has been planning the controversial project since 2007.
In a Jan. 9 Letter to the Board of Supervisors, the diocese objected to an item on Tuesday's agenda that would remove a special zoning overlay, added by the Board of Supervisors in 2011, that permits senior housing on the vacant lot.
"This development is as shocking as it is disappointing," the letter reads. "Such a change would undo the very approvals that this Board enacted less than four years ago and which both trial and appellate courts have since ratified for a project strongly supported by the community."
Yet some homeowners and residents have strongly opposed the senior living facility, filing court actions that have dragged on for four years.
The unincorporated Santa Ana community surrounding the 7.25-acre lot, often referred to as North Tustin, is mostly single-family residential homes.
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.
A community group called the Foothill Communities Association has led efforts to block the project since 2009, arguing that the construction of a senior living facility on the lot would violate the 1983 North Tustin Specific Plan, which stipulates the vacant lot could only be used to build single-family homes, a school or a church.
The homeowners' group successfully challenged the Board's decision, with Judge Gail Andler ruling in March 2012 that the county's creation of a new zoning category for a single property constituted illegal spot zoning.
Spot zoning occurs when a piece of property is allowed uses that are incompatible with surrounding properties or conflict with current zoning restrictions.
The diocese immediately appealed to the state's 4th District Court of Appeals, resulting in a Jan. 2014 judgment overturning Andler's ruling.
According to the higher court, the board's action was not illegal, because it serves a public interest, that is, providing housing for a growing population of seniors.
Still, the legal challenges are not over.
Homeowners' also claimed that the county did not follow California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) procedures. Although an appellate court ruled in favor of the diocese, the homeowners' group filed another appeal on Jan. 9.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who agendized the item, did not return calls for comment.
According to the staff report on Spitzer's proposal, no building permits have been issued for the project so far and "thus there is currently no vested right to construct senior housing on the property."
Removing the special zoning definition would "maintain the single family residential character of the North Tustin community," the report reads.
The diocese said that they have made several changes to the project to appease homeowners, such as increasing setbacks, placing parking underground, and removing commercial activity like a coffee shop and hair salon from the facility.
Former Sup. Bill Campbell, who voted in favor of the project in 2011 and has close ties to the Catholic Church, said there's no reason for the board to revisit the issue.
Given the homeowners' recent appeal, any decision by the board would be premature, he added.
"I don't see why the board would be considering this matter until after the Appellate Court is done," Campbell said.
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