Mine Sweeper

Photo by James BunoanNo matter how serious its problems, the proposed Sully-Miller housing development in Orange won't die.

Located on an old sand-and-gravel mine, the site houses a very dirty, noisy rock-crushing-and-recycling operation run by Hanson Aggregates. A six-acre park planned for the southwest corner of the site is occupied by an old landfill that vents so much toxic gas that nearly all the future homes will have to include special gas-venting and detection systems.

The project's 180-plus, Irvine-style homes will also be built in the old, true path of Santiago Creek, which tends to run fast and deep during storms. During the past two decades, the creek has steadily eroded a massive silt pond deposited by the Sully-Miller mining company. The site is even within the "inundation zones" of two nearby earthen dams; city engineers privately calculated that, should either dam break, water would fill the Sully-Miller site to a depth of 15 feet. The threat is so serious there's nothing engineers can do to alleviate the danger.

Indeed, the project is so fundamentally flawed that Newport Beach-based project developer Fieldstone Homes actually signed a contract with the nearby Orange Park Acres (OPA) equestrian community to boost the project. According to the remarkable document, OPA will get an equestrian arena and $500,000 for promoting Fieldstone's plan at every opportunity. At a packed May 5 Orange Planning Commission hearing, 17 OPA members happily fulfilled their contractual obligations.

"Every environmental and aesthetic concern has been addressed," said one OPA resident. "It meets all reasonable expectations."

Other OPA folks—mostly wearing jeans, flannel and cowboy hats—described the development as "an opportunity for the city of Orange to turn an eyesore into a jewel" and cheered Fieldstone for doing "a great job in providing for the city."

One speaker could barely conceal her glee at the prospect of a new horse arena. "We don't have a place to throw a decent party," she said. "We like to play."

"We're very sensitive to the environment," Fieldstone President Steve Cameron told four planning commissioners (a fifth, Mara Brandman, had recused herself because she lives in OPA). "Our project would be a perfectly acceptable way to reclaim the property."

In fact, the only way to undo the damage wrought by decades of mining is to restore Santiago Creek to its original boundaries, which once spanned the entire site.

For a time, it appeared the California Office of Mine Reclamation (OMR) was going to require exactly that. On Feb. 4, OMR Assistant Director William Armstrong wrote that the city was in violation of the state Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA), which mandated that mine owners had to reclaim any site closed after Jan. 1, 1976. Orange officials had said the Sully-Miller mine operated until 1995.

That seemed to kill the project. But on May 5—the same day as the contentious Orange Planning Commission hearing—Armstrong sent a new letter to Orange. This time, he completely reversed himself, saying the SMARA didn't apply to Sully-Miller.

"On Monday, April 14, 2003 . . . Hanson Aggregates presented a series of aerial photographs of the Sully-Miller/Fieldstone Communities property to OMR staff," wrote Armstrong. "The photographs suggest to us that active mining in fact did cease prior to 1975."

Armstrong added that when the city determines the mine closing date, the state can then tell the city how to proceed.

For locals who have spent months researching Sully-Miller's entangling legal and environmental issues, Armstrong's last letter is a cold slap in the face.

"The letter doesn't absolutely close the door," said Orange resident Bill Bouska, who discovered the likelihood that the city was derelict in coming up with a SMARA-type reclamation plan. "The problem in all this is that no one kept good records. [The OMR] isn't going to do any detective work, so I have to go find more proof."

In any case, the Planning Commission ended up deadlocked, kicking the whole thing up to the Orange City Council, which will take up the matter next month.


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