Supervisors Scrap Controversial Housing Project in North Tustin

A resident who supports the project speaks at the Orange County Supervisors meeting. (Photo credit: Nick Gerda)

A years-long development battle in North Tustin took a major turn Tuesday, with a split county Board of Supervisors narrowly voting to kill a proposed senior housing project by the Catholic Church that was previously approved.

The proposed project, known as The Springs at Bethsaida, would place a 153-unit senior housing complex between a single-family-home neighborhood and Newport Avenue.

Catholic leaders say it would provide sorely needed homes and services for seniors, and fit well with the surrounding area. They say it would be unobtrusive, with large setbacks between existing homes and the 30-foot-high main building.

Many local homeowners, meanwhile, say the project would be a large commercial operation next to quiet homes, and that its 2011 approval was an inappropriate “spot zoning” that violates the spirit of the county’s North Tustin Specific Plan, which is designed to preserve the area’s low-key nature.

The project approval – and associated changes to the specific plan – were passed in 2011 under then-supervisors’ Chairman Bill Campbell, a big supporter of the Catholic Church who also represented North Tustin on the board.

But his successor, current Chairman Todd Spitzer, sees it differently and has led the push on the board to undo the project. With Supervisor Shawn Nelson already opposing the project, Spitzer just needed one more supervisor on his side.

He ended up getting that, with Supervisor Lisa Bartlett joining him and Nelson in Tuesday’s 3-2 vote to undo the project approvals. Supervisors Andrew Do and Michelle Steel voted against the reversal, and thus in favor of the project.

Bartlett said while she thinks it’s “really an outstanding project,” the location – and the process by which it was approved – are problematic.

“I would like to see the project built somewhere, but in looking at the North Tustin Specific Plan, you have to adhere to and abide by what the residents” put in place for their community,” Bartlett said.

Meanwhile, Do emphasized that a prior board had already deliberated on the issue and came to a well-thought-out decision. “The item was heard, it was deliberated, it was debated, and it was voted on,” Do said.

That is “the core basis of our government,” he added.

In laying out his position, Spitzer harkened back to 1996, when he was elected to his first term as supervisor, and a promise he made to North Tustin residents that he’d never agree to violate the specific plan without a separate conversation about whether to change the entire plan.

The “essential question” before supervisors Tuesday, he said, was “Do you believe in the sanctity of the North Tustin Specific Plan?”

The issue drew three dozen public commenters to the meeting, mostly area residents who oppose the project.

“I think that the integrity of the North Tustin plan should remain as-is and that you should reverse the spot zoning,” said resident Don Bauer.

Several speakers from the Catholic community – as well as seniors who want to live in the housing – also turned out.

“i just want to live in a beautiful senior community and have access to my faith and a wonderful community as you do,” said Diane Slentz, a senior who said she hopes to be a future resident of the project.

A church representative emphasized the low-key nature of the proposed housing.

All of the existing homes next to the property would be neighboring single-story bungalows at the project, said Susan Hori, an attorney for the Diocese of Orange.

And most of the senior residences will be in a central structure that’s 30 feet high, she added, which is “five feet less than what you could build” under single-family zoning.

Meanwhile, another lawyer for the diocese, set the stage for a potential lawsuit by the church.

That attorney, Sean Matsler, alleged that Tuesday’s action by supervisors violates state law by relying on an addendum to a 33 year-old environmental impact report.

“This addendum violates CEQA…and would not withstand legal scrutiny,” Matsler said, referring to the California Environmental Quality Act.

Spitzer countered by saying County Counsel Leon Page advised that supervisors can move forward with undoing the zoning because the church hasn’t gained any “vested rights” to develop.

Leading up to Tuesday’s vote, there were also questions about whether Spitzer had an ethical – and possibly even legal – conflict of interest related to the project.

Since he took office in 2013, records show that Spitzer has received consulting payments that could reach into hundreds of thousands of dollars from a firm run by Ron King, who has been a leading fundraiser for the campaign against the project.

King owns a home within the specific plan, about 0.7 miles from the site and has argued in the past that the housing project would make traffic worse on his street, Hewes Avenue.

Spitzer was told by the County Counsel’s office in July that he shouldn’t participate in any decisions about the project, because a new regulation from the state Fair Political Practices Commission presents conflict concerns, given his income from King’s firm.

Spitzer then hired an attorney, who sent a letter about the issue to the FPPC, which wrote back in October that Spitzer couldn’t participate because of the potential traffic impacts to King’s home.

Spitzer’s attorney then went to the FPPC again, this time noting traffic studies saying the project wouldn’t affect King’s home, and the agency gave its blessing to Spitzer in November.

“I just want you to understand, despite the allegations…I’ve been following everything [to] the letter, by the book,” Spitzer said.

But, as the Orange County Register recently reported, Spitzer didn’t tell the FPPC that King “is vice chairman of fundraising for the Foothills Communities Association, which sued to stop the homes.”

Spitzer asked Page about that specific point on Tuesday.

Page responded that the state’s political conflict of interest law, the Political Reform Act, only regulates financial or economic conflicts. In his view, King’s leadership role in the community is “irrelevant” in determining whether Spitzer is banned from participating in the decision as a public official.

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