Blitzkrieg Development

Photo by Keith MayLooking south from the entrance to Irvine Regional Park, visitors once saw nothing but wild hillsides blanketed with bristly brown sagebrush. Those venturing along a not-too-steep trail past the mountain-lion-warning signs could find sunflowers, cacti and expansive oak groves.

But on July 18, visitors saw something new: a brand-new dirt road winding up the hillsides and along the eastern ridge. In some areas, shredded cactus leaves still lay atop the fresh red dirt, making the road look like a bloody scar.

Built without county approval, the road is the first sign of a new Irvine Co. development. Over the next decade, the county's most powerful builder will cover 7,000 acres of unincorporated east Orange with strip malls and multifamily apartments, condos and houses.

And in true Irvine Co. fashion, local residents are already pissed-off.

"What if this was habitat land?" asked Orange resident Marilyn Ganahl. "It makes me so mad."

In dealing with the city of Orange, the Irvine Co. seems to have mastered the worst political lessons of the past two decades. This is blitzkrieg development: soon after the access road appeared, the city planning commission met for a public study session—with just two of its five members present and the others away on vacation. Then city and company officials agreed to a schedule that leaves the whole planning commission just 10 days to read the massive environmental report, the comments by outside agencies on that report and the company's responses to those comments.

Finally, in a move that runs counter to the whole point of environmental review, the company has simply refused to discuss how it will handle the project's significant side effects until after final approval. According to Kathleen Brady, a principal with BonTerra (the name suggests "Good Earth"), the Costa Mesa firm that actually wrote the environmental report, the project is still just "a very broad concept." That means anyone trying to find out precisely how the Irvine Co. intends to handle the project's massive biological, traffic, grading and water-runoff effects is out of luck: the Irvine Co. refuses to discuss potential mitigation measures, saying it cannot do so until long after it has won planning approval.

The first parcel set for approval is a 518-acre triangle of hillsides between Irvine Regional Park, Peters Canyon Park and the Eastern Toll Road, known affectionately as Santiago Hills II. The land still falls under county jurisdiction, but the Irvine Co.'s environmental report is on file with the city of Orange—which intends to annex the land in a few years.

During the July 24 planning commission study session, more than 30 Orange residents took shots at the developer's actions. Their best ammunition came from 49 separate "comment reports" filed with the city. Eleven of those reports came from public agencies, including the county Planning Department, which sent an unprecedented and highly critical 29-page critique. Other negative comments came from the county Harbors, Beaches and Parks Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The problems outlined in the collected comments are myriad. The county alone said that the Irvine Co. had not considered the impact of its project on conservation lands next to the development; that it made no mention of any biological impact on two nearby regional parks; that the report contains habitat descriptions that are inconsistent with current "scientific literature"; that the report concludes the project's vastly increased runoff into both the Santa Ana River and Newport Bay would be no problem, but offers no analysis of existing runoff; and that the report contains no analysis of the kind or quantity of pollutants the development would create.

Just two of five city planning commissioners showed up for the July 24 session. They listened to several residents warn that city officials dealing with the Irvine Co.—perhaps the most powerful company in the county—were in over their heads. Their evidence: those same officials did not object to the imposition of an unusual, fast-track planning schedule that leaves the commission just 10 days to consider the report.

Commissioner Ben Prewitt nodded politely as residents far better schooled in the project than he pleaded with him to reject the Irvine Co.'s desire to defer all mitigation discussion "until a later date." He couldn't do that, he said, arguing that the planning session was dealing only with the "process."

This is the process according to the Irvine Co.: on July 18, before any official discussion of the environmental report had begun, long before any construction was authorized, and without notifying either the city or the county planning department, a company contractor cut the now-infamous access road visible from Irvine Regional Park. Irvine Co. spokesman Rich Elbaum told the Weekly that the road was to allow drilling equipment to move into the site to conduct geological tests. He also said the road wasn't big enough to warrant a grading permit—a point the county says it's still investigating.

The new road is particularly galling to the concerned residents—and not merely because it seems to indicate the Irvine Co.'s devil-may-care attitude. If the landowner allowed a bulldozer to slash across habitats near Irvine Regional Park, what's to stop it from cutting more access roads in sensitive habitats near Peters Canyon?

"Don't you have a problem with the Irvine Co. grading this road before they have approval?" asked Orange resident and former county planning commissioner Shirley Grindle at the study session. "Doesn't that bother you?"

Neither commissioner said anything, which probably doesn't matter anyway: no official record was kept of the study session.


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