3BD 3BA Underwater

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.

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.

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.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >