Mission Viejo residents can expect their city to keep its small town landscape for a while longer after city council members nixed a necessary zoning change for a controversial six-story development. 

It’s a move welcomed by many residents after city planning commissioners and staff said allowing for a combination of residential and commercial zoning would lead to similar projects and change the city’s skyline. 

[Read: Mission Viejo Planning Commission Rejects Controversial Whole Foods and Apartments Project]

The project, proposed by ValueRock Realty, would have added a Whole Foods, with apartments above the store, on the corner of La Paz and Marguerite — standing at six stories tall.

Since the complex is zoned for office space only, ValueRock requested the city change the zoning of this area to include a mix of retail and housing, known among city planners as mixed-use zoning.

Since Mission Viejo doesn’t have that type of zoning in its ordinances, ValueRock representatives asked to add it to the city’s code before they moved forward with the official proposal.

The council members voted 4-0 to deny the zoning request after the planning commission and city staff said Mission Viejo shouldn’t roll out the new zoning. Council member Ed Sachs was absent from the meeting due to an illness.

“If the City Council were ultimately to approve amending the Development Code to include this new Mixed-Use zone, other developers could request this zoning be applied to different properties throughout the City, especially in conjunction with General Plan Housing Element opportunity sites,” reads the staff report.

ValueRock representatives did not have the opportunity to come forward with a finalized plan or environmental impact report because the council decided to expedite the zoning process before this process was complete. The vote brought an end to the developer’s attempt to implement the project.

Council members said the process of moving up the zoning discussion caused them to come under a wave of criticism from residents, even though they said the goal was to prevent further progress of the potential development due to the concerns.

“As council members, we have been vilified over this,” council member Trish Kelley said at the May 10 meeting. “We received emails from people saying, ‘What are you guys thinking of? Are you trying to ruin our city?’ We weren’t thinking of anything. We were following due process.”

“When I saw [the plan], I was horrified,” Kelley said. “The council wanted to expedite the zoning process so we could bring closure.”

The developers are planning to reconsider other options for the property and reaching out to residents for suggestions and guidance.

“We listened with interest to the comments made by the Mission Viejo City Council members and our neighbors the other night regarding our plans for the Garden Plaza site,” ValueRock representatives wrote in a statement sent to Voice of OC Friday. “We remain committed to investing in the Mission Viejo community and continue to firmly believe that we can craft a project that provides the much-needed housing, jobs, and healthy food choices that were part of our original proposal, and fits with the character of the surrounding neighborhood.”

City planners warned if the rezoning was approved, similar developments could be popping up around town. 

However, council members said at the meeting that mixed-use developments aren’t inherently bad and will likely be required for the city to meet state housing mandates down the road.

In 2015, 13 opportunity sites were identified for future mixed-use development across Mission Viejo, including the proposed site for the Garden Plaza development. 

“I do think mixed-use zoning can be a good thing,” Council member Brian Goodell said at the meeting. “I think it probably will be necessary on some of the sites in the housing element.”

Carlos Pianelli, a Mission Viejo resident who spearheaded a local campaign against the project, said that he will continue to serve as a watchdog against mixed-use projects across the city, warning such developments would increase traffic and parking issues.

“We’re going to be the guardians of this city if we have to,” Pianelli said at the meeting. “[ValueRock] needs to repair, not neglect the property. Bring back our small businesses. Maintain the beauty of the trees by not cutting down or bulldozing 97 of them.”

Pianelli created the “Stop The Monster” campaign, which organized demonstrations against the project and encouraged residents to speak at council meetings. A petition also features more than 5,900 signatures to stop the creation of new mixed-use land use designation and zoning districts in Mission Viejo.

City officials were critical of state leadership, housing mandates and Assembly Bill 2011, which would open new sites across California cities to build affordable housing if it becomes law.

“One of the things that actually would be very effective is if everybody that signed the petition opposing this project would send a letter to Sacramento opposing Assembly Bill 2011,” City Manager Dennis Wilberg said at the meeting. “If this passes, we would have no say in ValueRock coming right back in and putting their project at the site we’re talking about.”

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

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