Anaheim Councilmembers Nix Controversial Condo Project in Hills

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

The Serrano commercial center in Anaheim Hills. Nov. 22, 2019.

Anaheim Councilwoman Denise Barnes was the deciding vote that denied a controversial 54-condominium development in Anaheim Hills that would’ve replaced a commercial center.

Residents near the proposed condo site on Nohl Ranch Road and Serrano Avenue have been protesting the development for months, starting with the Planning Commission in October and three City Council meetings after that. The corner is home to the Serrano Center, which has a dance studio, swim school and daycare. 

“It is clear we are not offering assurance to the residents who are trusting us to make decisions that impact their long term quality of life,” said Barnes, reading from a prepared statement during Tuesday’s meeting. 

“At the end of the evening, while some may not agree with conclusions this body arrives at, nobody should leave here and feel you’re not heard … or that you have been treated unfairly by some rigged system,” she said. 

The project was originally approved Jan. 28 and it’s last component — a mandatory second vote on a zoning change — was originally scheduled Feb. 4.

Until Barnes pushed back.

She cited concerns over the existing commercial center’s business viability and if the property owner had properly maintained the buildings. Barnes was able to postpone the vote until Tuesday, when the proposal ultimately failed on a 3-3 vote. 

Councilmembers Jordan Brandman, Steve Faessel and Lucille Kring voted for the project. 

Breaking from her initial Jan. 28 approval, Barnes joined Mayor Harry Sidhu and Councilman Jose Moreno in rejecting the condo development Tuesday. Councilman Trevor O’Neil recused himself because he voiced his objection to the project at the Planning Commission meeting last year. 

Kring said the commercial center is failing and the property owner, John Saunders, has offered up to $150,000 to help the businesses relocate. 

“Remember the owner has put up $150,000 to help these people move and, as somebody had suggested, if you don’t do anything with this center and this property, it is going to be a decaying center,” Kring said. “So eventually they’re going to move. They’ll be forced to move elsewhere.” 

She said Councilmembers have to balance the health of neighborhoods and property owners’ rights. 

“I’m a property rights person and when you’re on Council, there’s two things you need to do: You need to protect the property rights of people and you need to protect the neighborhoods,” Kring said.  

Barnes reminded everyone that Saunders had raised the rents on Rancho La Paz mobile home park seniors last year and expressed concern he could raise rents on the Serrano Center businesses to vacate the center. 

“As we have learned with the seniors, we cannot seem to prevent the landlord from jacking up the rents,” Barnes said. “I suspect the residents will lose the center regardless of what we do here tonight.”

Saunders faced controversy last year when he announced rent increases of up to 80 percent over five years after buying the Rancho La Paz senior mobile home park on the border of Anaheim and Fullerton.

Rancho La Paz seniors began lobbying both city councils for rent control after Saunders told residents he needed to increase monthly rents because of the increased property tax bill. 

A majority of Anaheim Councilmembers declined to adopt a mobile home rent control ordinance. Fullerton was set to vote for such an ordinance, until Saunders met with them. 

Fullerton created a mobile home rent subsidy in August and Anaheim followed suit in October. 

The proposed 54-condo development, which included 11 affordable units, is an issue that briefly put Sidhu and Moreno on the same page after spending last year constantly fighting at the dais over issues like when Sidhu successfully championed a $425,000 no-bid Chamber of Commerce contract and the secrecy surrounding the Angel Stadium negotiations, which is currently in the process of being sold to a shadowy company whose only known member is the team’s owner. 

The two agreed the Serrano Center should stay because it has various service businesses like a dance studio, swim school, daycare center martial arts academy and dry cleaner. Anaheim Hills residents also said they wanted the center to stay because of the after school activities for their kids. 

At the Jan. 28 meeting, Moreno reminded Sidhu that the Anaheim Hills residents who live next to the Serrano Center got their full 10 minutes to speak, unlike downtown residents who spoke at a public hearing last 

The City Council voted 5-2 last March to allow 39 condos on land half the size in a crowded, Central Anaheim neighborhood, known as the Colony District, near city hall. Barnes and Moreno dissented. 

Affordable housing isn’t part of the 39 condos in a City Council district where nearly 70 percent of households make less than $76,000 a year, according to the 2016 voting district census. Nearly 70 percent of Anaheim Hills households make at least $75,000 a year.

Sidhu cut down the speaking time on the roughly 20 Colony District residents at the March 5 meeting. 

Under the city’s public hearing rules, residents who live next to a proposed project are supposed to have 10 minutes each to make their case to the Council. All of the Colony District residents’ time was reduced to three minutes, including residents who live next to the project.

In contrast, Sidhu let everyone who lives next to the proposed Anaheim Hills development speak for the full 10 minutes each at the Jan. 15 public hearing.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio