In June 2015, the Orange County Board of Supervisors approved the Esperanza Hills project located in county territory adjacent to the City of Yorba Linda and Chino Hills
State Park. The proposal included 340 houses and three accesses on 469 steep, undeveloped hillside acres. This land is only zoned for 117 units, but the developer wants nearly triple that.
The Esperanza Hills property burned to the ground in the 2008 Freeway Complex Fire. Over 280 homes in Yorba Linda also burned to the ground. Existing roadways on both sides of the Esperanza Hills property were gridlocked in the simultaneous mass exodus as residents attempted to flee the smoke, embers, and flames. While 340 new houses
were proposed to use those same streets, no road capacity improvements were included.
When approving the project in June 2015, the Supervisors required two daily access routes, one on each side of the project to provide for resident safety in case one evacuation route was cut off by flames. A third access was reserved for use by fire fighters. The Supervisors also required a pre-annexation agreement with the City of Yorba Linda.
Supervisor Spitzer, in whose district the project lies, insisted on two daily access routes because he was concerned about the adequacy of the project’s only legal access on the east, Stonehaven Drive. That legal access is a steep canyon route with two hairpin turns and multiple grade changes. Part of the roadway actually sends traffic into the likely direction of oncoming flames. Spitzer also wanted to disperse the traffic so that the
Stonehaven neighborhood wouldn’t absorb the sole impact of the new project. He knows that the existing roads in that neighborhood already couldn’t handle a massive evacuation. He knows half of the Esperanza Hills project perimeter will forever be wildlands—as Chino Hills State Park. Therefore, the fire hazard danger will always be high at this location and the evacuation routes will always be constrained.
Much has happened since that original 2015 approval. Residents and four environmental groups challenged the project through the courts and won. The City of Yorba Linda refused to allow the developer to use parkland as a project access. Instead, the City pointed the developer in the direction of an alternate route on the west. This route, Aspen Way, was delineated in the City’s General Plan and suggested for use by the residents.
The Court ordered the County to rescind all approvals. The developer took this interlude to change his plans. Now he wants just one daily access using a huge bridge spanning a deep canyon that dumps all daily traffic onto Stonehaven Drive. He also no longer wants a pre-annexation agreement, thereby creating a new County island.
Last December, to comply with the Court, the Supervisors rescinded all project approvals and turned the project back over to the Planning Commission. In a unanimous vote, they asked the Commission to look at a reduced density, to consider two daily accesses, and to analyze the impacts of the new bridge.
The developer currently refuses a density reduction and claims the second access, Aspen Way, is infeasible since four endangered birds were found near the road alignment. Although the adjacent landowner is willing to sell the roadway easement, the Esperanza Hills developer is not interested. He claims there is no way he can mitigate the impacts to the birds and no way he can work his way through the paperwork and permitting. This is contrary to all of the other developers in the region—who are able to work through it.
Thankfully, the Planning Commission was not buying his excuses. They voted 5-0 to recommend that the Board still require two daily accesses and a pre-annexation agreement.
The new houses may be more fire safe with updated building codes, but the Esperanza Hills residents will still simultaneously evacuate out their single access—and then they will hit a log jam, like we did in 2008. One access is simply not enough for an
additional 340 houses emptying onto streets that were inundated with panicked evacuees during the last firestorm.
We were so appreciative of the Board’s unanimous acknowledgement in December of the need to reduce the density AND require two daily accesses. Since the primary role of government is public safety, we cannot imagine that the Board would go backwards and only allow one exit. Next Tuesday the project again comes before the Board of Supervisors, so we’ll see then how they view public safety in light of the lessons learned from the Freeway Complex Fire.
Bob Kanne, Yorba Linda Resident
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