Orange County cities have struggled for years to meet their affordable housing goals, falling short of state mandates to create the most affordable units amid a housing crisis. 

But city council members surrounding local airports appear to have found a new idea:

Sandwich affordable housing up against the airport. 

While OC officials struggle to find new areas for affordable housing, Newport Beach and Irvine are moving to build housing units closer to the airport.

But that shift has put them up against the county’s Airport Land Use Commission, a somewhat obscure county agency responsible for overseeing what can be built in the airport area that only meets a couple times a year. 

While the commission can’t unilaterally turn down the city’s housing plans, they can file complaints. 

“Placing residential uses close to an airport would subject future residents to noise from overhead aircraft and pose safety risks,” wrote AnnaSophia Servin, the agency’s public information officer, in a statement to Voice of OC.

Servin also cited a state law that described the agency’s powers as “to coordinate planning at the state, regional, and local levels so as to provide for the orderly development of air transportation while at the same time protecting the public health, safety and welfare.” 

When the commission files a complaint, cities have two options. 

Local officials can work with the commission to resolve the complaints like the county and Buena Park leaders did, or they can overrule them with a two-thirds vote of the city council. 

Newport Beach was one of the first to move forward with the idea. The city council members voted unanimously last month to approve their new housing element, which features 4,396 affordable homes for low, very low and moderate income communities. 

This includes 976 new affordable units near John Wayne Airport – the largest of the focus areas in the city.

Although the Airport Land Use Commission determined this area is too noisy for new housing, the council chose to overrule the determination and plans for housing in the area.

“It’s really so we can provide those opportunities in those areas,” Jim Campbell, the Deputy Community Development Director in Newport Beach, said at the Feb. 8 council meeting. “Those areas would have to be sound attenuated for those folks so they won’t be out there completely exposed to noise, all the interior spaces will definitely be mitigated to an acceptable level.”

While the commission is allowed to present their side and ask the city not to move forward, they can’t do much more than that, according to a statement emailed to Voice of OC by commission staff.

“If the local jurisdiction appropriately overrules ALUC…then the airport operator is immune from liability for damages to property or personal injury caused by or resulting directly or indirectly from the public agency’s decision,” Servin said. 

Cesar Covarrubias, executive director of the Kennedy Commission, said there aren’t a lot of options for affordable housing elsewhere in the cities, and it makes sense for cities to consider putting housing in these areas with lower density.

“I don’t see where there would be other opportunities. They aren’t going to go in single-family areas and rezone those for affordable housing,” Covarrubias said. “We have seen quite a bit of development happen in these spaces already.”

Covarrubias said that the topic isn’t new when cities scour for areas to create new affordable housing.

“In Orange County, when looking at development and trying to figure out where potentially development could happen, it’s going to tend to be in these areas that are probably lower density, lower built-out,” Covarrubias said. “A lot of the developments around the airport … those areas have been developing into a larger type of density as a whole.”

Irvine is set to follow suit with a reversal sometime in the next month after scheduling a public hearing to discuss overruling the commission, and the cities of Seal Beach and Costa Mesa are also expected to file paperwork soon according to the commission’s staff. 

In the last ten years, there were another seven times where cities overrode the commission to plan how they wanted. 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC News Intern. Contact her at ahicks@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.

•••

Start each day informed with our free email newsletter. Be alerted when news breaks with our free text messages.

And since you’ve made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.