Orange County supervisors are about to make one of their most significant decisions about land development in years, with a decision slated Tuesday on a housing project in the hills above Yorba Linda.
The proposed 340-home Esperanza Hills project, which would border Chino Hills State Park, is described by its developer as enhancing the surrounding area and filling a need in the housing market.
“I think at the end of the day we’ve got a very well-designed project that is in economic demand, and I think overall it makes the neighborhood a better place,” the developer, Doug Wymore, told Voice of OC on Monday.
Opponents say the homes would be at risk of burning in wildfires, which last swept through the project’s land in 2008, and would make existing traffic gridlock for wildfire evacuation even worse.
“This is ridge-top land that they’re going to use, and ridges are the most dangerous place to put houses because fires race up hills 14 times faster than they do going downhill,” said Claire Schlotterbeck, a longtime conservation advocate with the group Hills for Everyone.
The developer, meanwhile, says the new homes will be far more fire-resistant than existing houses, and will thus protect them from flames.
“We will provide a buffer as we move the wildland interface out to the east away from the homes that are more vulnerable,” in addition to providing fire breaks in nearby Blue Mud Canyon, Wymore said.
The proposal is drawing intense interest among nearby residents.
More than 250 Yorba Linda residents attended a county-hosted forum about the project last Thursday, with most wearing red to show their opposition, according to Schlotterbeck.
Activists were left shocked by the actions of their elected representative, supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer, after the forum, Schlotterbeck said.
At the Thursday forum, Spitzer told residents that if they wanted their comments to be part of the public record they’d need to speak at Tuesday’s county supervisors meeting, where the issue is up for a vote by supervisors, Schlotterbeck wrote in a Voice of OC opinion piece.
But less than 24 hours later, Schlotterbeck says, Spitzer’s chief of staff said each public commenter would be limited from their usual three minutes of speaking time to just one minute.
“It did come as a shock and a great disappointment, particularly after being encouraged to come,” Schlotterbeck told Voice of OC on Monday.
“What can you say in 60 seconds?” she added. “I have never seen this happen before.”
Spitzer declined to comment for this story.
Another shock, Schlotterbeck said, was that county officials are trying to waive their usual requirement to hold a second approval at a later date.
That extra approval, known as a second reading, would be another opportunity for public comments on the project and a chance for supervisors to reverse their approval, if they decide to move forward on Tuesday.
The project’s land is currently designated as open space in the county’s general plan, and is zoned for agriculture and oil production.
Its development would require a zoning change and an amendment to the general plan, which are both up for approval by supervisors Tuesday, along with signing off on the project’s environmental impact report.
Parts of that environment report have drawn skepticism from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which wrote a letter to county supervisors saying the report fails to fully address the project’s impacts.
“We believe the document does not adequately evaluate all project impacts to biological resources or the full range of mitigation measures needed to reduce potential impacts to a level less than significant,” wrote Gail Sevrens, an environmental program manager with the wildlife department.
In particular, she pointed to potential impacts to raptor food sources, a nearby stream and an endangered herb, the Braunton’s milkvetch.
Additionally, Sevrens said the environmental report gives misleading information about the proposed contractor for relocating the herb, which is a federally-protected species.
The environmental report says the contractor, Glenn Lukos Associates “was involved in a successful relocation of this species between 1995 and 2005 for the Oak Park Project in Simi Valley.”
But the relocation was far from successful, according to the wildlife department.
Of the 383 plants relocated by the firm, only one Braunton’s milkvetch was documented as still being alive in 2005, according to Sevrens.
“The department does not consider one Braunton’s milkvetch to constitute a successful relocation,” Sevrens wrote.
The project’s developer, meanwhile, says that environmental concerns have been thoroughly studied and addressed, including the creation of habitat for an endangered sparrow species.
The property is owned by three entities managed by Wymore: Yorba Linda Estates, LLC; OC 33, LLC and the Nicholas Long family.
Spitzer has received at least $4,000 in campaign contributions from the developer in recent years, along with an unknown amount raised by its well-known lobbyist, Roger Faubel.
Yorba Linda Estates gave a maxed-out $1,800 campaign contribution to Spitzer in May 10, 2012, according to campaign finance data.
On that same day, Wymore and project architect Gary Lamb, who is also a principal for the project, each gave Spitzer’s campaign $600.
Supervisors Michelle Steel an Lisa Bartlett also received maxed-out contributions from the developer, with each getting $1,900 from Yorba Linda Estates in their recent campaigns for supervisor.