3BD 3BA Underwater

A Newport Beach builder could put you in something spacious, lovely andif a dam breaksunder 15 feet of water

Illustration by Mark DanceyThere are places in this world so dangerous, so odious, so bad for an individual's welfare that people should not live in them. It's why we don't find many apartment complexes in volcanoes, why there is a paucity of split-level dwellings near the top of melting ice shelves and why everyone's advised to stay 500 feet from Carrot Top.

But in the city of Orange, Fieldstone Communities wants to build 189 homes on a hundred-acre site that could very well be wiped out by a devastating flood that could leave it submerged beneath 15 feet of water—and that's not even the worst-case scenario.

If the city approves construction, the Fieldstone homes will sit in what's known as an "inundation zones" of the Irvine Lake and Villa Park earthen dams—"inundation zone" being hydrologist shorthand for an area of total destruction caused by a dam failure. Johnstown, Pennsylvania—where 2,200 people died in an 1889 flood—was an inundation zone.

It's a serious problem that many local residents believe should have been enough to kill the project a long time ago. But Newport Beach-based Fieldstone doesn't think it's a problem. For the past three years, Fieldstone planners and public-relations flacks have gone out of their way to insist there's no problem building homes in an area that would be completely wiped out should either dam ever fail.

"Development in the hypothetical inundation zones is not at all unusual," said Philip Bettencourt, Fieldstone's spokesman. "If the Villa Park Dam broke, the flow of water would extend to the Mall of Orange."

Of course, the Mall of Orange is miles from the so-called Sully-Miller site, named for the mining company that owns it; any water that reaches the mall would have already torn through and over the now-demolished Fieldstone homes. Yet Bettencourt added that he didn't "know of any credible official that gives credence to these arguments."

So apparently Bettencourt doesn't think much of Orange senior planner Christopher Carnes. In a 34-page report for the Orange Planning Commission written last October, Carnes wrote of two environmental problems Fieldstone would not be able to solve. One of them was "site flooding during the failure of the Villa Park Dam."

In other words, even city officials admit there is no way to alleviate the danger posed by a dam failure. Yet rather than pack up their pretty drawings and PowerPoint presentations and apologize for wasting the city's valuable time and resources with such a potentially dangerous project, Fieldstone merely asked the city for a "Statement of Overriding Consideration"—a ruling that the project's benefits outweigh the potential environmental and human damage it could create.

In fact, Fieldstone hasn't been all that clear how bad that damage would be. In three years, the company has released voluminous environmental reports, documents, letters, studies, maps and lots of colorful sketches of stucco homes situated on tree-lined streets, but it has still failed to answer a simple question: How high will the water be in the proposed 189-home neighborhood should the Villa Park dam fail?

City officials wouldn't comment on this question, but one source familiar with the issue says the city public-works department did come up with an answer. According to the source, city engineers figure a dam break would turn the neighborhood into a lake 15 to 20 feet deep.

Let's mull over that figure a bit. Even taking just the lower number, that's water up to the roof peak of a single-story house. Then again, that's assuming the water would come down like a gentle rain, gradually filling the neighborhood as though it were a bowl. Of course, should the dam break, that's not what would happen at all. That 15 feet of water calculated by the city would enter the neighborhood more or less at once with the force of a tsunami. It would not surround the homes; it would demolish them.

Recent history is replete with examples. On Dec. 14, 1963, the earthen Baldwin Hills Dam broke. In just a few hours, a crack the width of a pencil widened to more than 75 feet. The resulting death toll—just five deaths—was considered a small miracle of timing: the dam failed during the day, allowing police to evacuate most city residents. Geologists believe nearby oil drilling may have set off a fault beneath the dam, leading to its failure.

When the dam finally gave way, 292 million gallons of water rushed into the inundation zone, almost instantly destroying more than 250 homes and buildings as terrified residents watched their homes splinter and wash away on television.

"What kind of risk is Fieldstone putting future residents in?" asked Jim Obermayer, a local resident and chairman of the Mabury Homeowners' Association environmental committee. Mabury has spent the past couple of years studying the project. "Santiago Creek is one of the major tributaries of the Santa Ana River, and the Villa Park Dam is built on a major earthquake fault. There is real risk here."

* * *

Even if the dams never break, future residents in the Sully-Miller site will have a hell of a time dealing with storms and floods. That's because their homes will sit in the original, true course of Santiago Creek. Historical photographs dating back to 1928 and included in the Fieldstone environmental reports clearly show water running over virtually the entire property. It was the creek that filled the site with so much sand and gravel in the first place.

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