Padilla: County Planning Commissioners Should Approve Tustin Senior Project

Fear is contagious. All it takes is for someone we believe to tell us we should be afraid. In my North Tustin neighborhood, fear has caught on like Ebola, and it’s killing a really positive and compatible use for an otherwise vacant lot.

Monday, the Orange County Planning Commission will have an opportunity to either accept fear and kill the proposed “Springs at Bethesda” senior living community or look fear in the eye and say, come on people – there’s nothing here to worry about.

Nothing motivates like fear. It’s built into our human DNA and goes off like a firecracker in our gut. Ordinary common sense and facts just don’t have the same power to get us moving like the prospect of eminent danger posed by, oh, let’s say senior citizens moving into the neighborhood. Forty-five years ago, when I moved to North Tustin I knew something was going to be built on the vacant lot adjacent to my property. More than 30 years ago, the North Tustin Specific Plan stipulated that the lot would be a school, a church or homes.

About 20 years ago, down the street on the corner of Newport and Seventeenth, developers proposed a shopping center and I was concerned that this commercial use would change the residential nature of the neighborhood, so I joined with my neighbors to protest and we eventually prevailed.

Eight years ago, because of my previous efforts in the community, I was contacted by Kisco Senior Living regarding preliminary plans they had for a top-notch senior living community to be built on the lot next door to me. I helped to arrange several meetings with my neighbors where Kisco presented the concept along with very early renderings. About 80 people attended the meetings and only one person expressed any kind of opposition.

Personally, I thought the senior living community was a great idea. Seniors are quiet; they don’t generate a lot of traffic, especially at peak hours. Single-family homes would be set 15 feet from my property line, and my neighbors would be able to peer right into my yard from the second floor. The Senor living community would be set 50 feet from the property line, protecting my privacy and would not generate noise from kids or teens.

Then fear set in. I don’t know what exactly prompted it, but suddenly the discussion changed from how to approach a residential community designed to accommodate the special needs of seniors to a litany of horribles based on fiction. People were incensed, outraged, afraid of what homes for seniors would do to the community.

A senior living community is not commercial development. The law is very clear that it does not set any kind of precedent opening the door to strip malls and other horrors. It is completely compatible with the residential character of North Tustin and with the significant mitigation and landscaping, it will hardly be noticeable. It will be quiet, beautifully designed, gentle on the eyes and a blessing to many seniors who want to live in the neighborhood they have loved for so many years, but need special accommodations to stay here.

One of the things the opponents like to tout is a so-called survey they trot out to show “overwhelming” community opposition to the project. I have walked my neighborhood and talked to every single household about what they think of the senior living community. I can tell you that people aren’t opposed to the senior community; they are opposed to a shopping center.

Yes, a shopping center. My neighbors fear the senior housing community will pave the way for a shopping center on the corner. Even though the Environmental Review and litigation both confirm that this is not the case, the fear continues. I don’t want a shopping center on the corner either. But creating a new neighborhood in our community designed for seniors instead of young families will not turn North Tustin into something it’s not.

I am hoping the Planning Commissioners will have the courage to see through the fear and get to the facts. Orange County has almost doubled in population since 1980 when the North Specific Plan was developed, and now has the third largest senior population in California. North Tustin has changed a lot since the 1980’s. This neighborhood can evolve to accommodate seniors and retain its unique residential character. We just have to put the fear to rest and move on.

Manny Padilla is a retiree living in North Tustin and is an active volunteer in Orange County Republican politics.