340-Home Development Above Yorba Linda Gets Approval Amid Wildfire Concerns

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.

  • Citizens for Animal Shelter, O

    In spite of all the massive housing development in North Orange County AND South Orange county, the residents of Orange county currently have but one county animal shelter to serve them. The current one, 76 years old and located in the city of Orange is 76 years old. Due to continued activism by concerned citizens, 5 Orange County Grand Jury reports citing management issues and unsafe and unhealthy conditions at the shelter, performance audit and a lawsuit due to violations of the law ( and in spite of 20 years of excuses by the OC Board of Supervisors) a replacement county animal shelter is under construction in the City of Tustin, which will be required to served 14 cities, including Yorba Linda, and all the unincorporated areas of Orange County. (management is still an issue)

    My point, Orange county politicians have continued to allow massive housing throughout Orange county, regardless of the traffic problems and protests by residents, and as of yet do little about the services which are and will be required as a result. Case in point, the one new animal shelter will be even further from North Orange county cities than the current dilapidated one. San Diego county has the same population and has 3 county animal shelters, Orange county – 1 county animal shelter. San Diego county has 4 nonprofit humane society campuses which assist with adoptions and teach Humane Education to children, Orange county has zero nonprofit humane society campuses.

    It said by many “A community’s treatment of its homeless PET population does not just impact the
    wellbeing of the animals themselves, it is a reflection of the health of the community it serves” and so I am reminded of Gandhi’s famous quote;

    “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

  • Joanna Clark

    We’re insane. Thousands of new homes being built and by the time they are finished, we may be out of water.

  • 6eaie2

    Will the city of Yorba Linda have the guts to block the development by not annexing those neighborhoods? Just watch the next few Council elections for huge campaign contributions by the developer and the wealthiest business coalition in the county: the Building Industry Association of OC.

    The Supervisors are irresponsible. Fighting wildfires is a severe strain on state and local finances, yet their decision obligates taxpayers’ money to fund those uncontrollable wildfire suppression costs.

    Wildfire risks are predictable and the costs of controlling them is uncontrollable. The state needs to step up by requiring local jurisdictions to pay 100% of the costs of protecting new developments from wildfires.

    Local leaders cannot continue to hide behind a veil of ignorance.

  • dc matthews

    Is this going to be more housing priced for foreign buyers and not help the local residents of OC with the unaffordable housing for most problem? Maybe they should be asked to build for the local OC residents needs as the Gops complain when section8 and Vash for vets are used, but want to build only more unaffrodable, creating a need for more long term govt assistance?

    • OCNewswatcher

      If you’re looking for “affordable” housing. Try Fullerton, Brea, Chino or Riverside all low cost for the local residence of OC.
      We are talking Yorba Linda.
      Whining about no “affordable” housing and lack of public transportation in a city that has one of the highest household incomes in the country (and all that can be said about the types of people who earn that kind of money) seems insincere.
      I mean, really, a low income, struggling family might want to look to East of YL for that affordable housing.

      • Peter Tam

        Yeah…Brea costs more than Yorba Linda..so does Fullerton, as it is nearer to the urban core. Every city is required by law to have affordable housing. It’s good for the health of the community to have people of all income levels live there. Yorba Linda is really, really boring and it’s Costco doesn’t even have a gas station. They also vetoed a Metrolink Station, subjecting it’s residents to a long commute. That’s not good for the long term health of its citizens.

  • octaxpayer

    more open space gone. Todd your my Sup and maybe you should listen more to your voters. You have been a big disappointment to my family. I see nothing will change with the BOS or County agencies and one reason I also quit working at the County. To much corruption.. You guys make me sick.

  • OCNewswatcher

    We have a cabal of pro high development members on the YL city council.
    Follow the money folks.

    • dc matthews

      How about some high rise mixed high end and affordable condo housing with green space and amenities all can enjoy -and added mass transport to mitigate traffic impact?

      • OCNewswatcher

        Why not just turn Yorba Linda into downtown Manhattan then.
        Or better yet, lets just copy downtown LA and all the great things that come with high density housing.

        • Peter Tam

          What’s your problem?

  • kburgoyne

    #1. What was the original planning of the roads that are intended as arteries to this new area? Were they originally planned to handle the capacity both during an emergency and as a matter of everyday use and maintenance impact? If the new capacity requirements were not included within the original road approvals, why have things “magically” changed just because somebody is waving around campaign bribes… errr… ummm… sorry my bad, I meant “contributions”.

    #2. How do the prices of these proposed homes relate to the income of the people who account for the claimed “50,000 to 62,000 units” of unmet demand? If we were to build 50,000 new homes on waterfront property in Newport Beach, would those homes at associated prices fulfill the demand? Or is perhaps the level of demand for new homes at the proposed supply price significantly lower, and therefore quoting the 50,000 number is misleading.

  • Gunny98

    “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.””

    Where does the water come from?

    • dc matthews

      Nestle? 😉

  • MatrixHater

    Money talks- safety of human beings walks.