Drama on the Dais as Supervisors Narrowly Reject Development Plan

Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

Orange County Supervisors Shawn Nelson and Todd Spitzer.

The personality conflicts that often bubble just under the surface on the Orange County Board of Supervisors spilled onto the public dais Tuesday as supervisors considered plans for a controversial 340-home development in the hills north of Yorba Linda.

When the project, known as Esperanza Hills, came before county supervisors last year, Supervisor Todd Spitzer – who represents the area – was adamant that it needs two main access roads for fire evacuations.

Spitzer rejected the idea of adding hundreds of new houses with just one exit, after roads were clogged in 2008 as people fled the Freeway Complex Fire, which swept through the property.

“I was deeply concerned about trying to move that many trips” during such an emergency, Spitzer recently said of his position.

So when the project was approved last June, supervisors required that it have two main access roads, with one running south and the other going to the west.

Fast forward to Tuedsay, and the project was back before supervisors for re-approval because a judge found flaws in the environmental analysis.

But this time around, the evacuation route proposal had changed.

The developer, Yorba Linda Estates LLC, needed to buy a piece of land west of the project in order to build the western access road. But negotiations fell through with that property owner, so the developer is proposing to limit primary access to just the southern road, which would run on a bridge over the fire-prone Blue Mud Canyon. There would be a smaller emergency road close to the main road that would also run south.

That doesn’t fly with Spitzer — nor does it with the more than 20 residents who showed up to oppose the project and raise concerns about fire evacuations.

Kevin K. Johnson, an attorney for the residents’ group, argued that “there is no way a project of this size can be shoehorned into this dangerous area without at least two full-time daily access points.”

Supervisors would be putting 340 new homes “into what is basically a funnel that is going to result in a disaster,” he said.

Spitzer wanted the project to go back to the county planning commission to look at a second access road or – if the developer can’t acquire land for the western route – a reduction in the number of homes in the development.

Normally such a request would be honored because supervisors typically defer to the member whose district a project is in. But in this case, the scaled-down access was nearly approved by a three-member majority of the board.

Supervisor Andrew Do made it clear he would support the one-road plan, saying that when it comes to developments, he has a “real problem” imposing “requirements are neither required or suggested by the people that we rely on for public safety,” like the Sheriff’s Department and Orange County Fire Authority.

And while Supervisor Shawn Nelson seemed to support Spitzer’s two-road position as long as the county stayed out of private property negotiations, he later reversed himself when Spitzer proposed holding back on approving the neighboring Cielo Vista development, whose property the western Esperanza Hills road would go through.

“If you hold these [Cielo Vista] guys hostage…I’m not gonna kill these people,” Nelson told Spitzer, before motioning to approve the one-road access plan for Esperanza Hills.

That set off a tense exchange as the vote approached.

Spitzer backed off his effort to hold back the Cielo Vista project, apparently trying to win Nelson’s vote. But Nelson didn’t budge, motioning for approving the one-road plan.

“Really, just out of spite?” Spitzer asked Nelson, causing some audience members to gasp.

“I tried to help you man,” Nelson replied. “I’m trying to get this right. You don’t want it right.”

Nelson’s motion to approve the one-road access then came for a vote, with Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett asking who opposed it.

Spitzer and Bartlett quickly registered their no votes. Then came a tense, drawn-out silence, suggesting that Nelson’s motion had the votes to pass. But Supervisor Michelle Steel looked nervous, holding her hand out sideways towards Spitzer before quickly removing her glasses.

As the silence continued, Spitzer publicly reminded Steel of an unspecified promise he had made her. “I made you a commitment,” Spitzer told her.

Steel acknowledged the “commitment,” and then voted against Nelson’s motion, tipping the scale to defeat it.

Spitzer then won his motion to send the item back to the planning commission.

After this article was published, Spitzer called a Voice of OC reporter to say his promise to Steel was that he would follow through on his public commitment to approve the Cielo Vista project on Tuesday.

Yorba Linda Estates is represented by influential lobbyist Roger Faubel, and all five supervisors have received maxed-out campaign contributions from the developer or its executive, Doug Wymore.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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  • kburgoyne

    Ummm… “lives” versus “money”. The “lives” only barely won out because of a side deal? Gosh. How heartwarming. And if there had been only one exit route, imagine how vehemently the developer would have fought against the potential buyers being explicitly informed of that fact before buying.

  • Greg Diamond

    On its face, Spitzer’s concern seems valid. However:

    Do’s response seems to suggest that OCFA — I don’t care as much about what the Sheriff’s Dept had to say about a fire evacuation plan — did NOT object to having only one (or one plus a fraction) escape route; if that’s true I’d like to know it and know why. I suppose that he could have some nefarious ulterior motive in wanting a second road, but based on this reporting I don’t see what it would be.

    I can understand why Nelson might getting irked at Spitzer shooting from the cuff by suggesting that the Board might twist the Cielo Vista owner’s arm to get approval of the escape route through that property — and Spitzer should know Nelson well enough to have foreseen that and acted accordingly. But unless Spitzer is being inappropriately alarmist here, I don’t see how Nelson could justifiably respond to that indiscretion by accepting an unsafe development plan that, among other things, could seriously hurt his own constituents in Brea, Placentia, La Habra, and Fullerton if there were a repeat of the Freeway Complex fire. (I’m talking about the value of their homes in the event of a serious disaster, not something “trifling” like their emotions or livelihoods.)

    I understand Bartlett’s position here, and I think I understand Do’s position here — but I’m seriously disturbed by Steel’s. She’s WAY far away from this place — or, frankly, from anyplace LIKE this hillside development. Why was she demanding a “commitment” from Spitzer that he’d support Cielo Vista in the first place? Her ONLY tie to this decision would be as a function of her relationship to that project’s developer — or to the Yorba Linda Estates’ developer — or to Faubel and whomever Faubel’s opposite number is with Cielo Linda (presuming that that’s not him too, which I shouldn’t do.) Why is THIS an issue in county politics that leads her to take such a stand?

    As for the Brown Act violation — the only way it would be a problem is if one or more other Supervisors were involved. (Even then, if one Supervisor lobbies each of the four others and gets their individual commitments, but doesn’t transmit any information to and from one Supervisor to any others, I think that there’s authority that that’s OK.) So yeah, it raises interest — but the odds of it leading anywhere are probably lower than the odds that the Yorba Linda Estates project won’t ultimately be built.

  • Jacki Livingston

    Shawn Nelson was the only sup who even attempted to find out about the corruption I saw. Now this? Well done, Nelson…you may actually be doing a good job.

    • Rivett

      Don’t worry yourself, he’s not.

  • LFOldTimer

    “Yorba Linda Estates is represented by influential lobbyist Roger Faubel, and all five supervisors have received maxed-out campaign contributions from the developer or its executive, Doug Wymore.”

    I have the utmost confidence that the supervisors will unify, a solution will be found and all 340 homes will get built. Possibly even more.

  • RyanCantor

    As the silence continued, Spitzer then reminded Steel of an unspecified promise he had made her. “I made you a commitment,” Spitzer told her.

    Steel acknowledged the “commitment,” and then voted against Nelson’s motion, tipping the scale to defeat it.

    . . .

    Smells a lot like a Brown Act violation.

  • David Zenger

    Happy to see good government is taking place.