So often it’s hard to determine if something is good or bad unless you have a historical perspective. It’s especially difficult when you find out a new subdivision is going to be built, and you had no idea it was on the books. I know the feeling. It happened to me in 1998 when I saw grading in the hills near my home. I made a phone call, and my life has never been the same.

From that call I learned of the Serrano Heights development — it was entitled and ready to be built.  The guy on the other end of the phone told me that it was too late to do anything about Serrano Heights, but that it was important to save the adjacent property, Barham Ranch, from development.  I had no idea what he was talking about, but felt the urgency of his plea.  Thus began my land-use education.

Barham Ranch is a 509-acre parcel next to Santiago Oaks Park.  It was destined for development. Teamed with another like-minded individual, we rallied our community, filed a lawsuit, helped recall a school board, and generally created a ruckus.  Eventually, thousands of people got involved. It took us five years, but with the help of Supervisor Todd Spitzer, in 2003, Barham Ranch was purchased and added to Santiago Oaks. This disastrous development plan was defeated.

Little did we know that an even bigger land use disaster was brewing in East Orange.

1989 East Orange General Plan allowed 12,350 houses, 348,000 daily car trips
1989 East Orange General Plan allowed for 12,350 houses, 348,000 daily car trips

Meanwhile 15 years earlier, another mindset existed

In 1984, the City of Orange started the planning process for 22,000 acres in East Orange that was designated in the city’s sphere of influence. This land was part of the 93,000-acre Irvine Ranch. Donald Bren, the chairman of The Irvine Company (TIC), owned the entire ranch. TIC determined that 7,000 acres would be slated for large-scale development. The vision was to build four urban centers that would sprawl down Santiago Canyon Road, clear to Irvine Lake, encompassing 12,350 housing units, retail, mixed-use and office space.

The plan would require massive grading of pristine habitat. To create a 1,200 single-family-unit subdivision, nearly 17,000,500 cubic yards of earth had to be moved. This represented only 10 percent  of the entire project.  Orange had a developer-driven history, so increasing the city by 25 percent  and adding 348,000 daily car trips didn’t send up any red flags!

The first-phase town center was 1,755 acres known as Santiago Hills II near Chapman and Jamboree. It was to be a mixed-use development of mid-rise buildings for retail and employment totaling 1,732,500 square feet and 1,756 medium-density housing units.  Traffic alone for this town center concept would have generated 97,128 daily car trips.

The planning process was completed in 1989, and the Orange City Council approved the East Orange General Plan.  No specific  development  proposal was brought forth at that time, but the die was cast.

That same year TIC preserved 2,500 acres in Limestone Canyon. In 1992 it donated 377 acres to the county to create Peters Canyon Regional Park.

All was quiet until it wasn’t

Ten years passed and everyone forgot about the sprawl. In 1999, public notices for Santiago Hills II popped up. Community members started meeting. We rallied our community, started reading Environmental Impact Reports, met new neighbors and again created a ruckus.

The Irvine Company had eliminated the 1989 town center plan for Santiago Hills II, and settled on 1,746 housing units on 494 acres, but the impacts were still unacceptable.  At the September 7, 2000 planning commission meeting, a local gadfly scolded the audience and demanded that we take the deal, as it would be “the best you can ever do.” Residents were shocked and disagreed.  It was this outrageous demand that empowered a group of citizens to challenge the status quo.

A group of local residents formed the Orange Hills Task Force. Chris Koontz, a 19-year-old Villa Park High graduate, filed a lawsuit against the Irvine Company. Ultimately, a settlement agreement was reached to ensure public trails, protect the Irvine Park view shed, address water conservation and other concerns.

Meanwhile on Nov. 28, 2000, the Irvine Company announced it would permanently protect 11,000 acres that included Fremont, Blind and Baker Canyons.

2005 East Orange plan allowed for 4,000 houses, 45,000 car trips
2005 East Orange plan allowed for 4,000 houses, 45,000 daily car trips

Quiet again, but the Irvine Company still has entitlements to the east

No one knew when the other shoe was going to drop.  In 2005, TIC brought forward a project east of the toll road.  The commercial town center concept was off the table, and replaced with two residential subdivisions (Areas 1 and 2), a lodge, a golf course, and a marina at Irvine Lake.  The sprawl to Irvine Lake seemed counterintuitive to the conservation dedications Bren had been making.

The Orange City Council approved the project that reduced Santiago Hills II to 1,596 units, but combined with Areas 1 and 2, totaled nearly 4,000 residential units.  It would generate 45,000 car trips per day. Orange Hills Task Force challenged the project in court.  We were relentless in our pursuit to protect the canyons and halt the sprawl. Our small group funded multiple law-suits over a period of four years. It was expensive. The Irvine Company prevailed.

2016 East Orange, revised Santiago Hills II, 1,180 houses
2016 East Orange, revised Santiago Hills II, 1,180 houses

The silver lining of the 2008 recession

The economic downturn took a toll on development in Orange County. Even the Irvine Company was impacted. Bren made good on his 2001 pledge to turn over land he had earlier dedicated to public ownership.  In 2010, 20,000 acres was deeded to the County of Orange for preservation and guided recreation. This was the largest single donation of land in the county’s history, and increased OC Parks by 50 percent, to 60,000 acres.

The best news came in 2014, when  Bren made the decision to preserve all of the land–from the 241 Toll Road to Irvine Lake (Areas 1 and 2)–that the Orange Hills Task Force had fought to protect.    These  were  the  final pieces needed to complete his vision to keep intact the sweeping expanse of beautiful and valuable open space–truly a masterpiece–on the Irvine Ranch.  Bren’s legacy will be what he left undeveloped, 57,000 acres to be exact – a first class collection of natural lands!

What about Santiago Hills II?

The Santiago Hills II development is moving forward at the city. It is entitled, but has been scaled down to 1,180 residential units. The Irvine Company has been working with the community to ensure trails and connections are made. It is honoring the Koontz settlement agreement. More land will be dedicated to Irvine Park.

While many East Orange residents believe 1,180 units is still too many, Orange is the big winner. Our boundaries are now defined. Growth inducement out to the canyons will be minimized. We will never know what impact our activist effort had on Bren’s “not to build” decision. Ultimately, it was he alone who decided the outcome for East Orange. Thankfully, he set a very high standard for conservation, a unique and historic model for others to emulate. Perhaps it was the quiet time over the years that allowed him to rethink development and open space planning.

Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears is a community leader who has been involved in land use and regional public benefit issues for 25 years in Orange County. As a solutions-oriented activist, she has taken a leadership role in grass roots efforts supporting the public’s right to know and petition their government, community engagement, legal remedies and direct democracy. Sears oversees the daily Opinion page at Voice of OC.

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