By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
For its part, city community development director Alice Angus said the city attorney's office is still trying to determine what happened with SMARA and how to rectify it. For its part, the state office of mine reclamation recently sent investigators to the Orange city attorney's office in an attempt to piece together Sully-Miller's history.
"Curiously, our staffers found permit numbers for some actions but then couldn't find any permits. That's a bit of a concern," said state Department of Conservation spokesman Don Drysdale. "We're currently drafting a letter to the city on what it should do to come back into compliance with the law."
Amazingly, sources close to Orange planning officials say the city might try to insist the Fieldstone plan represents an adequate reclamation plan.
In fact, news that so much work at Sully-Miller went on without oversight means a proper reclamation plan for the mine is more vital than ever. "This land needs to be reclaimed," said Obermayer, the Mabury Homeowners' Association official. "The silt needs to come out. The creek needs to be restored. The whole area should be open space. I keep thinking how much brighter the future of this land could be if they don't put homes on it."
Mabury and Obermayer have been a thorn in Fieldstone's side for years. The well-heeled neighborhood of 384 homes overlooks the Sully-Miller site from the north bank of Santiago Creek. Originally, the Mabury Homeowners' Association adopted a classic NIMBY attitude against Fieldstone's plan to put 17 homes on the north side of the creek. But after Fieldstone rejected Mabury's opposition, neighborhood officials began researching the wider project.
"People clearly didn't do their homework," said Obermayer, referring to the streambed and SMARA issues plaguing the project. "This is just not a good project. If it was just a flat piece of land, we'd have no trouble with the project as a whole. But that land has too many problems. We're not saying that the owner shouldn't get fair-market value for the property. But all the city has to do is say no to the project."
Despite the flood and dam problems, it won't be easy for city officials to kill the project. Fieldstone has done a good job dangling carrots before the city.
State law requires three acres of parkland for every 1,000 residents. Orange has barely half that dedicated to park use. Fieldstone understands this well and has dangled numerous public-use freebies before city officials in an attempt to win approval for the homes. They want to raise a new bridge over Santiago Creek, build equestrian trails through the property, and put in a public park.
Originally intending to only build a 3.5-acre park on the site's southwest corner, Fieldstone suddenly upped the park to six acres after the city's Parks Planning and Development Commission gave them a thumbs-down. Local activists speculate Fieldstone will increase the park size again to 10 acres before the fight is over.
But the park argument works even better against Fieldstone. For all the talk about building homes in a flood zone, the Sully-Miller site holds much promise for local residents, should the city ever realize the land's potential. In what will eventually be the center of Orange, the old Sully-Miller quarry could become a restored swath of nature—an extension of Santiago Oaks Regional Park next door and part of a solution to a parks problem the city has been wrestling with for decades.
Back in the early 1970s, city planners were studying exactly that: Sully-Miller as dedicated open space, with a restored Santiago Creek flood-control channel. It's a vision that lived on for many years—if only in promotional pitches.
In 1995, Mark Moore moved to Orange Park Acres, which borders the quarry to the east. He remembers how insistent real-estate agents were about what was going to happen to the Sully-Miller site.
"They told me it was an abandoned recycling operation and that in two years, the area was going to be either a park or a golf course," said Moore. "Those were the only options he said. I had absolutely no problem with either."
As late as 1999, the city of Orange's Master Plan for Park Facilities, Recreation and Community Services projected that the Sully-Miller mine "could likely be restabilized to allow sports-field development and community-center building sites."
But like much of what seems to happen at Sully-Miller, the city forgot about all that park planning when Fieldstone brought in its residential-development proposal. On Feb. 19, the Orange Planning Commission will hold another hearing on the Fieldstone proposal.
There is still time to return Santiago Creek to its proper course. Like so much else in Orange, the dream of restoring the Sully-Miller site to its natural beauty hasn't washed away yet.