Dissident Councilwoman Barnes Becomes Deciding Vote on Controversial Anaheim Hills Condo Project

The development notice still stands in front of the commercial center on the corner of Nohl Rancho Road and Serrano Avenue almost a month after the Planning Commission denied the project. Nov. 22, 2019

City Councilwoman Denise Barnes is now a swing vote on a controversial housing project in Anaheim Hills after she motioned to continue the final approval until Tuesday’s meeting, despite the project passing on a previous vote. 

Depending on how she votes, Anaheim Hills residents may see businesses at the Serrano Center stay instead of 54 condominiums replacing it. A required zone change on the project looked to be on its way to an approval until Barnes began raising questions during the Feb. 4 meeting.  

Barnes said she’s obtained new information that could change her vote on the project and has questions about rent and property upkeep. 

“… I am not prepared to vote on the second hearing and confirmation of the approval until I’ve had time to dig deep in this information,” Barnes said at last Tuesday’s meeting. 

Although the project has been previously approved, the zoning change was up for a mandatory second reading. 

She told Voice of OC that residents in the area brought her new information, which raised questions about whether the property owner can increase rents in order to flip a profit, despite what development consultants said at the Jan. 28 meeting when the condos were originally approved. 

“I think it’s only fair that people don’t come back and say it was spun or anything like that. That we clearly see what’s going on and, especially, the landlord would’ve had rent that was at a marketable rate for him not to lose it in this way,” Barnes said last Wednesday. 

She was able to convince her Council colleagues to push the item until this Tuesday.

The City Council originally voted 4-2 to approve the controversial development Jan. 28, overturning an October Planning Commission denial. Mayor Harry Sidhu and Councilman Jose Moreno dissented, citing concerns that residents in the area will lose businesses that serve their children like a swim school, dance school and daycare center. 

Councilman Trevor O’Neil abstained from voting on the condo project because he voiced opposition at the October Planning Commission meeting. 

Barnes requested the zone change be pulled off the consent calendar at the Feb. 4 meeting and told her Council colleagues she’s concerned about potential property negligence by the landowner, John Saunders. 

“A quick review of the building permits online does not reflect the upkeep of the property,” said Barnes at last Tuesday’s meeting. “I think we should look into how many times the neighbors have reported violations on that property. Because I did go out there and I really was appalled. I felt like I was in a West [Anaheim] neighborhood. The landscape is shoddy, at best — and the [wood] sidings?!” 

She also said she wants more information on the rents, after project consultants previously told Councilmembers Saunders can’t raise to make a profit because of the type of businesses and set up of the center. 

“I also have issues with the claim that market rent can’t be captured on that property … as we have seen Mr. Saunders is capable of jacking up rents,” said Barnes, referring to the Rancho La Paz senior mobile home park he owns. 

Saunders, the property owner, 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 54-condominium development, which will include 11 affordable units, could replace the existing commercial center on the corner of Nohl Ranch Road and Serrano Avenue. Originally the development called for 58, but Councilmembers got the developer to knock it down to 54 units in an effort to protect the privacy of homes next to the development. 

The condo development is an issue that’s pitted some residents against each other — with West and Central Anaheim residents telling Councilmembers their part of the city consistently deals with dense housing projects and Anaheim Hills residents should host their share of new housing. 

Some Anaheim Hills residents told the Council and other residents that the community is master planned and the condos aren’t the right fit for the community. Others said if people can’t afford to live in the area, they shouldn’t move in. 

And other Anaheim Hills residents said they’re concerned about the wildfire evacuation plan, and cited the hours-long evacuation of the Canyon and Canyon II fires. 

Fire Chief Pat Russell told Councilmembers Jan. 28 that there wasn’t an evacuation plan during that time and the Anaheim Fire Department has since worked one out with the Anaheim Police Department, Orange Police Department and the California Highway Patrol. 

He also said the 54 condos shouldn’t impact the plan. 

During last Tuesday’s public comment, Dana Cisneros said she heard rumors that Councilman Jordan Brandman and Barnes agreed to some sort of backdoor deal in order to get the Jan. 28 votes to approve the project. 

“To come up here and use this sacred podium for communications as a legal device for future litigation is so beneath what I believe is the honor of this well-intentioned Anaheim resident,” said Brandman, adding Cisneros could’ve emailed him and Barnes instead. 

She later emailed Brandman to apologize. 

He also said the Anaheim Hills residents’ comments at the previous Council meetings helped reduce the number of units. 

But, Brandman said, he’s received a flood of emails and Facebook messages criticizing him for the Jan. 28 vote. 

“So here’s my response to anyone who sent those Facebook messages and emails: If you would like to come down your hill and travel 15 miles … please do so. In fact, I will walk those streets with you … and we’ll see if you get the desired response you hope for … from my neighbors living between Euclid and Magnolia,” he said. 

“You may be surprised.”  

Barnes, in last Wednesday’s interview, said she wants to make sure that the property could still be a viable home to businesses before voting to replace it with condos. 

“Our housing is usually designated on land that’s available, not something that’s demolished and put into a developers equation and made affordable,” Barnes said.  

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio