Orange County supervisors plan to vote a third time to approve a proposed 340-home development on high fire-risk land next to Chino Hills State Park, after an appeals court blocked the project because supervisors approved the project without minimum evacuation standards.
County officials “merely required future preparation of an evacuation plan without setting forth any specific standards for the plan to meet,” states the unanimous ruling by justices David A. Thompson, Kathleen E. O’Leary, and Eileen C. Moore of the 4th District Court of Appeal.
The proposed project, known as Esperanza Hills, is in a “very high fire hazard zone,” according to the October 2017 ruling. The 2008 Freeway Complex Fire “burned the entire site in approximately 40 minutes, along with roughly 30,000 additional acres adjacent to the site,” the ruling states.
Supervisors at one point wanted the development to have two main access roads, which the county Planning Commission recommended. But the supervisors’ May 2017 approval of the project had one main road to and from the development, which would run on a bridge. The supervisors’ project approval also called for an emergency access road.
The court ordered the county to undo its approvals of the project and fix problems with the fire evacuation plan, as well as inaccuracies with water demand estimates and descriptions of the surrounding state park. County supervisors followed through with undoing the project approvals Tuesday at their regular meeting. Its developer is Scottsdale, Arizona-based Yorba Linda Estates, LLC.
Supervisors plan to re-approve the project about two months from now, after the environmental impact documents are updated due to the court ruling. The project will go to the county Planning Commission on Aug. 22, and then the supervisors in late September, officials said Tuesday.
“The process is gonna go through the planning commission again and it’s going to be re-certified,” said supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do, referring to the environmental analysis the court ordered fixed before the project can move forward.
“It’s really important to understand that the court isn’t saying that this [environmental impact report] is defective, on the face of it, in terms of the data contained in it,” Do said.
“What the court is saying is, ‘No, be more specific. Have a plan.’ ”
Supervisor Todd Spitzer, whose district includes the project site and the nearest existing neighborhoods, in Yorba Linda, said the problems were more serious.
“The court absolutely, without a doubt, said that plan was not sufficient to deal with both evacuation and fire,” said Spitzer, who voted against the May 2017 project approval.
The people who live near the proposed project site “have faced fire time and time and time again,” he said. “Everybody who lives in that area needs to know that in event of a major [fire], which has happened and will happen again, they can get out safely.”
In its ruling last year, the appeals court also found the county improperly underestimated the water use required by the project, which was used to declare the local water district has an adequate supply to support the project. The county’s estimate did not factor in the water needed during construction and, after the homes are built, for common areas like parks, according to the ruling.
“There is no explanation of the anticipated water demand associated with the community’s landscaped common areas, roughly 85 acres of [fire] fuel modification zones and habitation mitigation areas,” the ruling states.
“This includes, for example, roughly 13 acres of active and passive parks ‘dramatic fountain geysers and [a] boulder-lined babbling brook[,]’ and fruit tree groves. Also absent is any discussion of water demand associated with the projected two years of grading for the Project and three to seven years of construction.”
“When the public inquired about the availability of sufficient quantities of water,” the ruling added, “the County spent more effort explaining why it was not statutorily obligated to prepare a formal water supply assessment than it did explaining how it determined there would be enough water.”
And the court ruled the county environmental documents gave inaccurate information about the size of Chino Hills State Park, which is next to the proposed homes, as well as inaccurate maps of the state park, which the court said interfered with the ability to accurately analyze impacts to the park’s biology.
Specifically, the court found, the county’s environmental report “understated the acreage” of Chino Hills State Park by roughly 2,300 acres. “And the inaccurate maps showed [the state park] lying north and east of only the northern portion of the Project site, whereas [the park] actually borders the entire northern and eastern boundaries of the Project,” the court ruled.
It was the second time the county lost a lawsuit over the project. Opponents sued after the supervisors’ first approval in 2015, and the court found fault with one aspect of the county environmental documents. Supervisors re-approved the project in May 2017, prompting another lawsuit that resulted in the October appeals court ruling finding three types of problems.
Before supervisors approved the project, area residents warned the fire evacuation plan was inadequate and put lives at unreasonable risk. They sued twice, in 2015 and 2017, with judges agreeing both times that the county needed to fix flaws with the environmental analysis before moving forward with the project.
A lower court awarded $518,000 in legal fees to the plaintiffs who sued the county. While the fees are officially owed by the county, a written agreement requires the developer to reimburse the county for its legal fees related to the project.
The developer appealed the court’s award of legal fees, which has not yet reached a conclusion.
County Counsel Leon Page, the county’s lead attorney, said the court ruling was similar to a “fix-it ticket.” When courts find a “defect” with a development’s environmental analysis, they issue an order to fix it, but that “doesn’t mean the project can’t necessarily be built,” he said.
The lawsuit that led to last year’s appellate ruling was filed by five conservation groups: Protect Our Homes and Hills; Hills For Everyone; Friends of Harbors, Beaches, and Parks; Endangered Habitats League; and the California Native Plant Society.
Melanie Schlotterbeck, an advocate with Friends of Harbors, Beaches, and Parks – which was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit – said the group believes the project needs to be redesigned and that county must re-distribute its environmental impact report – which county officials disagreed with Tuesday.
“Why would you continue to approve such a dense project?” Schlotterbeck said at the meeting. “Re-evaluate how you can get 1,000 people out of the area safely.”
“The public has a right to provide meaningful input,” she added. “Staff is saying, ‘Trust us, we will get it right this third time.’ But we don’t trust you.”
Schlotterbeck reiterated her prior request, via a letter, that the county consider purchasing the land from the developer using available grant dollars for local governments to purchase open space for conservation, such as the Orange County Transportation Authority’s Measure M2 funds.
County staff previously determined the idea isn’t feasible, without explaining why. Spitzer wanted county staff to respond to Schlotterbeck’s letter and explain its rationale for not pursuing the land purchase idea.
Do disagreed, saying staff can “analyze issues and report to us [supervisors].”
Spitzer pushed back. “It’s important to have a record of why this county feels it’s not viable,” he said of the land purchase idea. Facing no support from the other supervisors to ask staff to respond, Spitzer said he would simply get a briefing from staff about Schlotterbeck’s letter.
Esperanza Hills’ developer, Yorba Linda Estates, is represented by influential county lobbyist Roger Faubel, and all five supervisors have received maximum-allowed campaign contributions from the developer or its executive, Doug Wymore. That included $1,900 for Do’s campaign in May 2016 as he faced a close re-election.
Contact Nick Gerda at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @nicholasgerda.