Byrne: Esperanza Hills Development Could Threaten Lives if Approved

The proposed residential development in a high hazard fire-prone area near Yorba Linda neighborhoods could threaten lives—yet the Board of Supervisors is set to consider it again Tuesday. Residents have twice challenged the Board’s approval of the 340-unit Esperanza Hills project—and won twice in Court.

The site is extremely fire prone and hard to evacuate. We residents remember all too well the 2008 Freeway Complex Fire, which damaged or destroyed 280 of our homes near the site of this proposed development.

Over 280 homes were damaged or destroyed in the Freeway Complex Fire.

The water system failed. Families were caught in gridlock while trying to evacuate. The nightmare cascaded out regionally, further complicating the situation. Fire trucks arrived late, if at all. Beyond all this, we learned painfully that firefighters can’t control a fire driven by sustained Santa Ana winds until the weather changes. Imagine what could happen if the Esperanza Hills project is approved? An estimated additional 1,000 vehicles full of evacuating families, children, and pets would choke those same already gridlocked streets. How much stress will that put on emergency services? It’s a terrifying thought.

And yet the developer, confidently counting his votes on the Board of Supervisors, decided to eliminate one of the only two access roads on which evacuees might escape a fire in the project’s second iteration. This move cost him the support of home district Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who had already raised concerns about the one access that had been secured—a steep, winding road with multiple hair pin turns which also empties onto a steep neighborhood street. Spitzer has consistently voted against this single access and has stated numerous times it’s the wrong development for the community. But rather than scaling down his proposal, the developer stood by all 340 units.

The Esperanza Hills project includes 340 houses with one daily access for residents.

The site is a known fire corridor. In addition to the 2008 Freeway Fire, the area also burned in the 1980 Owl Fire and the 1943 Santa Ana Canyon Fire. Given the area’s fire history, why have public safety agencies okayed this project with only one exit?

Publicly, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) has stated that they can handle an evacuation. However, in a recently uncovered memo, the OCSD asked for as many exits as possible be built. Why isn’t this request being addressed?

We residents are baffled by the Supervisor’s disregard for the damage and trauma we suffered during the fires of 2008—the loss of property and pets, and the years of costly recovery that ensued. By approving the project not once but twice, four of the five Supervisors showed callous indifference to the testimony of scores of residents, many of whom lost their homes. Supervisor Spitzer was the lone dissenting vote. We can only hope the fires across California have awakened their sensibilities to the dangers of this project.

The Supervisors placed their faith in a developer’s plan rather than the evidence of multiple fires and the testimony of residents. These residents were not imagining this nightmare scenario; they lived through it.

Flames raced through Blue Mud Canyon, where Esperanza’s entrance road is, catching this home on fire and destroying it.

Hopscotching embers from a wind driven fire make a mockery of paper evacuation plans. Ember storms burn houses down and block escape routes far from the flame front. In short: approving a plan with only one exit is an invitation for disaster.

Perhaps the Board’s willingness to bend over backward for this developer is an effort to shield against an earlier blunder.

Project applicants are required to indemnify the County against the expense of a lawsuit. That way, taxpayers don’t bear the costs of a legal challenge, and the developer is incentivized to have their ducks in a row. But there’s a problem with the Esperanza Hills’ case that could cost the taxpayers a pretty penny.

The developer has already lost two lawsuits regarding this project—and now, by exploiting a poorly written indemnity agreement, he publicly stated he will refuse to indemnify the County against the costs of these suits unless his project is approved.

It’s worth noting that the County has responded to this lapse by passing a new ordinance to protect itself in the future. We applaud them—but in the case of Esperanza Hills, it’s too little, too late.

Furthermore, the developer apparently didn’t want to sign this new indemnity agreement. And, even with a signed agreement, he can pack up anytime and dissolve his LLC. This would leave the County (and therefore the taxpayers) stuck with the bill. At this point, the only remedy is to require a bond from the developer, an action allowed by the new ordinance. Why would the County forego this protection?

The question is: Will the Board succumb to the developer’s threat? Or will they use their leverage of approval to demand a safer project with two access roads and fewer homes? If the Board of Supervisors fails to protect us, we residents will bear the terrible cost—in more ways than one.

Joe Byrne is a 30-year resident of Yorba Linda.  He is a mechanically gifted self-made entrepreneur whose career includes two successful businesses and multiple patents.  He is also an advisor for the Career Technical Educators for the California Department of Education.

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org