A controversial housing development in the hills above Yorba Linda received a major approval Tuesday from county supervisors, over the concerns of nearby residents that the project would put lives at risk by worsening already-gridlocked evacuations during wildfires.

The 340-home Esperanza Hills project would sit between Chino Hills State Park and residential neighborhoods in northern Yorba Linda on land that, until Tuesday, was designated as open space under the county’s general plan.

That designation, along with zoning of general agriculture and oil development, didn’t allow the land to be developed at the density proposed for Esperanza Hills.

That changed Tuesday, when county supervisors unanimously approved changing the general plan designation from open space to “suburban residential” and upped the zoning to allow the project.

The approval came after an organized group of residents raised a series of concerns, especially regarding fire evacuations. But the developer argued his project would act as a buffer between existing homes and a wildfire.

Wildfires last swept through the Esperanza property during the 2008 Freeway Complex Fire, with residents describing flames soaring along roads clogged with traffic as people tried to evacuate.

“We were stuck and scared to death on narrow winding streets,” said Yorba Linda resident Marlene Nelson.

She and other opponents contend the Esperanza development would only make gridlock worse by adding 340 homes uphill, with the one main exit road flowing into neighborhood streets.

“This project is a threat to our public safety, which you have sworn to protect,” said Sharon Rehmeyer, a Yorba Linda resident and project opponent.

“Our streets were too small to handle a mass evacuation, and Esperanza Hills evacuees will make it even worse.”

County officials, meanwhile, have said they can safely evacuate the area in an emergency by mobilizing large numbers of sheriff’s deputies to direct traffic.

Yet when it comes to the amount of time it would take to actually evacuate the area, sheriff’s officials have backed away from their estimates.

When the zoning change first came before supervisors at their March 10 meeting, sheriff’s department officials said they could evacuate the area in 1.5 to 2 hours in the event of a wildfire.

Yorba Linda city officials have since been given a different answer, according to Supervisor Michelle Steel.

“I don’t know that that’s going to be enough time to evacuate all the people,” Steel said Tuesday.

“If you’re asking me to put an exact time, I couldn’t do that,” replied sheriff’s Lt. Lane Lagaret, the chief of police services for Yorba Linda.  If deputies manage the intersections, “we can move traffic in a quick manner,” he added.

Steel noted the contradiction.

“That’s not what I heard from the last board meeting from the sheriff, [where] they made it very clear about the timing,” she replied.

“That’s difficult to say,” Lagaret replied.  “I don’t have a concern with us doing it….I’m confident we can evacuate all the residents.”

The developer, meanwhile, argued that the project will serve as a buffer that protects existing neighborhoods.

“Is the area safer having hardened homes between the existing homes and the fire coming in from Chino Hills State Park? It is,” said the developer’s representative, Doug Wymore.

The “hardened” construction approach makes the new homes highly resistant to catching fire, he added.

That argument was ridiculous to Claire Schlotterbeck, a longtime conservation advocate who helped organize many of the residents.

“In what universe is someone’s home sold as a firebreak for someone else’s home? I mean it was just an inane argument,” she said.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer, meanwhile, pointed out that the developer would be paying for new water reservoirs, which he said would be “a big enhancement to the water delivery system for the entire community.”

Spitzer also got a requirement to the process that a further stage in the process – the approval of final tract maps – would come to supervisors for a public discussion, rather than be handled by a little-known county committee.

And he successfully set up a requirement that before final approvals, Yorba Linda would have to agree to annex the project into its city borders, instead of leaving it as an unincorporated county “island.”

Additionally, a request by Supervisor Lisa Bartlett to explore adding sirens to the project that would warn residents of impending flames was rebuffed by the developer, and supervisors ultimately opted not to pursue it.

Having different rules for Esperanza Hills than the other nearby neighborhoods could “lead to confusion,” Wymore said.

Speaking in support of the project was the county’s main home construction trade group, the Building Industry Association of Orange County.

Mike Balsamo, the trade group’s CEO, noted the housing shortage facing the county, which a recent report estimated at 50,000 to 62,000 units.

“Esperanza Hills is an excellent candidate” for relieving some of that gap, he said.

Additionally, roughly 20 percent of the job growth in Orange County over the last two years is related to construction and real estate industries, he added.

Other concerns from residents included the extra water requirements the project will place on Yorba Linda Water District customers as the district faces a 35-percent mandated reduction in use due to the drought.

Asked about that point, the water district’s engineering manager, Steve Conklin, said the district’s analysis that they’ll be able to serve the project hasn’t changed.

The residents’ group opposing the project, Protect Our Homes and Hills, will soon be deciding whether to file a lawsuit challenging the project.

“It is really discouraging that [the supervisors] either don’t understand or they simply ignored the experiences of the Freeway Complex Fire,” said Schlotterbeck.

“They talk about the hardened homes, and the fact that they’ll put homes in place of the brush that’s there now.  But the tradeoff is that you now have 2,000 more people exiting the same streets that were gridlocked before.”

You can contact Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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