It was eerie opening the Orange County Register on Oct. 23 and seeing that the Orange City Council had unanimously approved a plan to build 128 homes on the former Sully-Miller gavel mine in East Orange. Known as The Trails at Santiago Creek, the project includes 68 acres of dedicated open space and trails.
For a moment, I thought I was transported back to 2003, when I wrote a series of articles on a proposal to put 189 homes and a lot less open space on that same site. That Sully-Miller is still–STILL–being promoted as suitable for residential development is incredible.
Here’s the main problem, put as simply as I can: the old Sully-Miller gravel mine sits in the inundation zone for the Villa Park Dam. We’re talking the actual inundation zone for an earthen dam.
That alone should have prevented the project from ever even appearing before the Orange Planning Commission. Back in 2003, I reported that one City of Orange planner actually put into writing that “site flooding during the failure of the Villa Park Dam” was a problem then-developer Fieldstone Communities simply couldn’t solve. But instead trash-canning the project, the City of Orange agreed to give Fieldstone a “Statement of Overriding Consideration,” which said the benefits of the residential community outweighed the potential disaster facing that community.
What’s more, the project site sits in the old Santiago Creek channel–and back in 2003, I saw plenty of evidence that the creek has been steadily returning to that old channel for a while. Flooding of the creek is also a real danger–when that happened in 1969, the creek turned into a raging river 125 feet across. Here’s how I described what took place back then, in a Jan. 31, 2003 story:
“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.”
Of course, the Orange City Council approved the Fieldstone project back later in 2003. But then it got overturned through a referendum. Fieldstone eventually left, and in 2007 Anaheim-based Milan Capital bought the land. Their initial project was for 395 homes, but that was too much, even for the City Council. So they pared down their plan to what got approved this week.
For nearby residents like Mark Moore, who’s lived next to the Sully-Miller site for 22 years, this is very good news. Though mining stopped there decades ago, rock-crushing and rock recycling does happen there. And it’s really loud and really dusty.
“A NASCAR race track would be preferable to what’s there now,” he told me yesterday by phone. “I’m hoping there’s an end in sight. As soon as my kids grew up and moved out, all of their respiratory issues went away. Maybe I’ll finally be able to sleep past 7 a.m. without having the symphony of machinery by my house.”
Back in 2003, I interviewed Moore about the problems his family and neighbors were facing by living so close to the rock recycling operation (which was run by the firm Hanson). “Moore says both he and his wife have experienced pneumonia several times in the past six years, though they never experienced respiratory problems before moving to Orange,” I reported at the time. “Moore says the recycling has cost his family thousands of dollars in medical bills, clogged air-conditioning filters, caused them to lose sleep, and provided a steady soundtrack of harsh quarry noise and truck traffic that begins at dawn nearly every day.”
Moore also told me that when he first moved in, real-estate agents promised him that the operation at Sully-Miller would close soon. “They told me it was an abandoned recycling operation and that in two years, the area was going to either a park or a golf course,” he told me at the time. “Those were the only options he said. I had absolutely no problem with either.”
But it didn’t work out that way. Moore ended up supporting the Fieldstone project–to him, it was the only way to get rid of the rock recycling. “Hanson is a gun Fieldstone is holding to our heads to support their project,” Moore told me.
And it worked. Moore said 25 of the 30 families that live in his part of Orange Park Acres supported Fieldstone, and now Milan. But many other East Orange residents, including some in Orange Park Acres, feel very differently, and have threatened to do another referendum to kill the new Milan project. If that happens, Moore’s greatest fear is that like Fieldstone, Milan will just give up and walk away, leaving the very profitable rock recycling plant intact.
Back in 2003, I spoke a lot to Orange good government activist Shirley Grindle. Though very sympathetic to residents like Moore who wanted the rock recycling plant shut down, she just couldn’t believe that the city would allow residential development in a flood inundation zone.
Grindle’s no longer in the fight over the Sully-Miller site, but I called her anyway for this story to find out her thoughts. “In my opinion, there should have been a ballot measure to have the city buy the land and use it just as open space,” she said. “But the opportunity for the city to step in and make it open space was when Sully-Miller stopped mining.”
That was a long time ago. And something tells me there’s a lot more that will still happen before Sully-Miller ceases to cause tensions in Orange.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.