3BD 3BA Underwater

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

Once nothing more than a wide channel of Santiago Creek as it winds from Irvine Lake to the Santa Ana River, the site became a sand and gravel mine for the Sully-Miller company in the 1940s. Historical and environmental research suggest the company, bought out by Hanson Aggregates in 1992, abused the area frightfully. Huge deposits of silt, created as the lucrative gravel was mined and washed, were dumped throughout the site in massive ponds. These ponds actually changed the course of Santiago Creek, diverting its once-wide banks northward into a narrow rock-lined channel.

Although the silt dumping occurred in plain sight, it's unknown whether Sully-Miller ever obtained permission from the state to alter the course of the creek. The company also failed to submit—and the city of Orange failed to ask for—a state-mandated reclamation plan for the area when mining ceased in 1995.

In other words, Fieldstone is asking the city for permission to build homes in a streambed that was geologically altered in unknown ways and then never properly reclaimed.

Problems continue. Hanson Aggregates uses the land today for concrete and asphalt recycling—crushing old roadbed into rock and gravel. It is a dirty, noisy business that has plagued dozens of nearby homeowners for years with incessant truck traffic, clogged air-conditioning vents and, some residents insist, a variety of respiratory ailments.

So why would Fieldstone want to build homes here? Fieldstone is a big, successful development company. Since 1981, the company has built 16,000 homes throughout Orange County and Southern California. It recently completed neighborhoods in Chula Vista, Oceanside, Chino Hills, Rancho Bernardo and Utah.

But in this old gravel-mine and rock-crushing hell, Fieldstone sees a tremendous opportunity. They see nearby neighborhoods held hostage by the recycling operation—one Hanson Aggregates has all but said will continue long past everyone dies unless someone buys them out.

"Hanson won't go until we get approval," is how one Fieldstone official put it to local resident Mark Moore during a recent Sully-Miller meeting. Indeed, Fieldstone promotional materials highlight this explicitly: if local residents support building homes, Hanson's rock-crushing operation ends.

"The crack of a bat against a Little League baseball could soon replace the grinding noise of a recycling operation along Santiago Canyon Road," reads one Fieldstone brochure. "Youth soccer teams could sprint across a grassy field once covered with gravel, weeds and chunks of concrete. There could be swings and a jungle gym instead of wire fences and rusted shacks."

The tactic didn't work on Moore, but he realizes its power. "Hanson is a gun Fieldstone is holding to our heads to support their project," he said.

* * *

About all Fieldstone has done concerning the Santiago Creek issue is to propose concrete "revetment walls" along Santiago Creek designed to "prevent erosion." These walls might help keep normal rainfall moving through the creek, but their use during big storms is debatable. Santiago Creek is no mere drainage ditch—when storms hit the creek, it has a tendency to run deep and fast.

Floods and heavy rain have been washing away homes near Santiago Creek since at least 1810. During a storm in 1884, Santiago Creek "ran at will," wrote historian Terry Stephenson, dumping as much as two feet of silt into Santa Ana. It destroyed a railroad bridge and washed away several miles of track, cutting off communication between Santa Ana and Los Angeles for six weeks. One local Santa Ana resident at the time called the creek "a raging torrent" with "breakers like those of an ocean." Floods in 1889, 1916, 1927 and 1938 created similar damage.

The creek mostly stayed within its banks after that—until 1969, when all hell broke loose during some of the worst local storms of the century, swelling the creek into a raging river 125 feet across. So much debris backed up water at the old Santiago Creek Bridge that county flood-control officials blew it up. Homes washed away until the U.S. Marine Corps flew in helicopters to shore up the bank with junk cars. A flood of that magnitude will wash out the entire Fieldstone project.

Most disturbing, locals have for years been watching Santiago Creek slowly return to its old channel. David Piper, an accountant who has lived next to the Sully-Miller property nearly his entire life, has been amazed at the ongoing erosion of a massive silt pond at the extreme eastern edge of the property. Once wide enough to accommodate two dump trucks side by side, the berm is now barely two feet across, pitted in places and, he says, pretty much unsafe to walk on.

It's increasingly likely that Sully-Miller dumped silt into the creek without approval or oversight from the state Department of Fish and Game, which has jurisdiction over such actions. A public-records request by Orange resident and activist Shirley Grindle asking for permits filed by Sully-Miller turned up nothing in either Sacramento offices or the local regional Fish and Game office. Since records at the department created before 1974 are nonexistent, it's at least possible the company obtained permission or conducted work before streambed-alteration required oversight.

Of course, it was Grindle who also determined that city of Orange officials had never asked for—and Sully-Miller had never provided—a reclamation plan for the site, despite the 1975 State Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA), which mandates such plans. After prodding by Grindle, state officials recently began researching why Orange seems to have forgotten about SMARA.

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