Orange Park Acres is the kind of horsy community where the 4-H Club thrives and horse people visit from miles around to attend equestrian events. In fact, the Orange Park Acres (OPA) homeowners' association loves horses so much they signed away their constitutionally guaranteed free-speech rights to a developer in exchange for a horse arena and half a million bucks.
On June 19, 2000, OPA board members signed a contract with Newport Beach Fieldstone Communities to provide "vigorous support" to the developer's East Orange 189-home project, located on the old Sully-Miller sand and gravel mine. In exchange, Fieldstone promised OPA land and money.
Incredibly, board members signed the contract years before Fieldstone had released any environmental studies on its project.
Even as evidence mounts that the project is horribly flawed—situated in an old creekbed that was not only never properly reclaimed from the damage wrought by years of mining but also lies in the inundation zone for two earthen dams—OPA officials insist Fieldstone has a winning plan.
"The Orange Park Acres Association has supported the Fieldstone Master Plan since its inception," OPA director Mark Sandford said in one of the developer's brochures. "The newest design alternatives provide an economically superior plan for our Mabury neighbors across Santiago Creek. We think this new plan is the best yet."
Sandford has gone out of his way to boost Fieldstone's project. "Overall, the developers have gone a long way to make this a good development," Sandford told Orange County Register reporter Jit Fong Chin in a Nov. 21, 2002, story. The reporter added that "OPA board members say Fieldstone's proposal presents the most realistic option for the site."
The Register only partially explained the motivations of Sandford and his fellow OPA board members. After quoting Sandford, the Reg mentioned that Fieldstone had agreed to give OPA a seven-acre equestrian arena currently leased by the community, as well as $500,000 to build a public community center.
But what the Register didn't reveal is that Fieldstone's offers are a quid pro quo contingent on the OPA board's unconditional support of the project.
"[S]upport shall be demonstrated at all times, including, without limitation, at meetings with representatives of the city, other governmental authorities or community interest groups," states the OPA-Fieldstone contract. "Such vigorous support shall continue until such time as Fieldstone has recorded all of the final maps with respect to the property."
Under the agreement, the OPA board must "co-sponsor mailings, telephone surveys and speaking engagements in support of Fieldstone's proposed development." The agreement also made clear that Fieldstone would reduce the $500,000 "seed money" for each house the Orange City Council subtracts from the plan.
Acknowledging that board members can't legally "compel" any OPA resident into supporting the plan, the agreement nonetheless mandates that "the officers, directors, employees and other representatives of OPA shall use their best efforts to advise all members of OPA of the significant benefits of this agreement and the necessity for vigorously supporting Fieldstone's proposed development of the property."
When asked why the board signed such an extraordinary, draconian agreement, Sandford became defensive.
"Do you find it unusual?" he shot back. "You know what? The bottom line is this is a community that now has some control [over the arena]. We don't collect dues—it's run based on donations. We've gotten no money from the county or city. The bottom line is this community does stuff. It's proactive for the general public. That's why this agreement was made. If we didn't support the project, we wouldn't have signed the agreement."
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In fact, the Fieldstone project existed only in vague terms when Sandford signed the agreement. Issues like the complete lack of a reclamation plan for Santiago Creek or the placement of the project in an area that would flood out in heavy storms or be wiped out entirely should either the Villa Park Dam or the Irvine Lake Dam fail simply didn't exist back then. Sandford dismissed these concerns as irrelevant—which is exactly what Fieldstone paid him to do.
"The dam issue is not something that would stop the project from the city's point of view," he said, ignoring how city senior planner Christopher Carnes had already reported that the dam inundation zone issue is a potential deal-breaker for the city. "The city and county and the developer will all make sure this works. If you analyze all the benefits, this development is far and away better than everything that's come along."
Not everyone agrees, and opposition to the Fieldstone plan has been growing for the past year as new revelations about the development's problems and potential dangers increasingly isolate Sandford and OPA.
"In a way, I don't blame them," said Jim Obermayer, environmental committee chairman for the Mabury Homeowners' Association. Mabury, located just north of the Sully-Miller land, is a well-to-do community that has long opposed the Fieldstone project. "You almost have to dismiss them, their own self-interest is so screaming," said Obermayer. "They're almost prostituting themselves for a developer."