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As a citizen and homeowner in the City of Orange, I am opposed to the proposed amendments to Ordinance 13-20, severely limiting the scope of the Design Review Committee (DRC). The impetus behind these changes appears to be an effort to fast-track projects for well-connected developers, regardless of the impact that these projects have on the city and its many diverse neighborhoods. This is troubling.
Since the 1970s, the DRC and its predecessors have served the citizens of Orange, reviewing architectural projects throughout the city. The DRC protects the unique character of all of our neighborhoods, while maintaining a vital business community. The committee’s discussions and decisions have been transparent, carried out in public meetings.
Now the city wants to take, essentially, all authority from the DRC and vest it in a single city employee, the Community Development Director (CDD). The revised ordinance deletes language requiring that approval or denial of projects be made at a public meeting. The DRC will no longer review any project, except those in the historic districts. Even in Old Towne and the Eichler neighborhoods, the DRC will be without real authority, limited to making recommendations rather than determinations.
We will be vesting all of this power in an unknown quantity. The current CDD has served the city well, but has announced his retirement coincident with the announcement of these changes. The new CDD will be responsible for the initial design decisions on every project in the city; his or her job will be on the line with every decision.
The design of the built environment, including architecture, landscaping, signage and streetscape is a major contributor to the quality of life in our city. Whether in Old Towne, on Tustin Street, off Katella Avenue or anywhere in Orange, having significant projects reviewed by a qualified committee of citizens in open public meetings is surely good governance, and a service to the community. The DRC is
motivated to see well-designed projects built. Projects that come to the DRC with designs that are
sensitive and compatible with their surroundings are usually approved in one meeting.
While this sweeping change is positioned as a focus on historic districts, a citizen-empowered design
review function was established long before anything was designated as historic in Orange. The DRC’s original and most important work is citywide. Largescale development in Orange is often right up against a residential neighborhood. Whether it’s a multi-story senior living center or the enormous new development on the last big parcel of open space, these projects should be reviewed by design professionals in a public forum. These projects need review to ensure thoughtful design and compatibility, not less. “Streamlining” to get these projects approved quickly, quietly, and out of the
public eye is not in the interest of anyone but the developers.
The city has to keep some semblance of a DRC to maintain its National Historic designations, even if it has no real teeth. Old Towne and the Eichler districts are not well protected in these revisions, and protecting them is important. However, it is not the only important thing.
Removing a committee of qualified citizen reviewers from the planning process might serve developers,
but it does not serve the people of the City of Orange.
J.P. McDermott is a resident of Old Towne Orange and a risk management professional. His wife Anne is a member of the DRC.
Last fall, Orange residents packed city council chambers to voice their opposition to the 128-home Trails at Santiago Creek development on the former Sully-Miller site. Residents told council members it wasn’t responsible to put homes near a flood plain, in a high-risk fire area, next to a methane-emitting landfill.
They urged council not to change the “resource/open space” designation of the General Plan, which prohibits houses on the site. They wanted long-standing community plans upheld that designate the land as “open space.” Ignoring those concerns, council members – Mark Murphy, Chip Monaco, Kim Nichols and Mike Alvarez -- voted unanimously to change the General Plan to “residential,” paving the way for the large housing development at the already traffic-jammed intersection of Santiago Canyon Road and Cannon Street.
Residents fought back. In just 27 days, more than 13,000 Orange voters signed a referendum to put the issue on the ballot this November. Only 7,001 signatures were needed. This should have come as no surprise to city council. It was the third referendum drive in recent history. Cities, and ultimately, taxpayers, bear the cost of validating referendum signatures.
In Orange, that cost was $29,716. Cities rack up even greater costs when issues go to litigation. Attorney Charles Krolikowski, who represents several Orange County citizen groups, says it can cost cities hundreds of thousands of dollars to respond to citizen group lawsuits. When asked how cities can avoid litigation, Krolikowski says, in a word, “transparency.”
Residents in Santa Ana open council’s eyes
In February, the group North Santa Ana Preservation Alliance led a successful referendum drive after the Santa Ana City Council voted 4-3 in favor of a 256-unit apartment complex. Another group, Santa Ana Citizens for Responsible Development filed a lawsuit, claiming the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) failed to address impacts on surrounding neighborhoods. On his Facebook page, Councilmember David Penaloza called residents’ efforts to gather 19,000 signatures in 30 days “inspiring” and “eye-opening.” Following the referendum drive, the council voted to repeal the actions that rezoned the property, negating the need to put the issue on the ballot.
According to Dale Helvig, who lives near the site and participated in the referendum, their district representative Jose Solorio repeatedly sang the praises of the project. When it came to voting on repealing the ordinance, Solorio abstained. “They’ve got to realize,” Helvig said, “it’s the people
that put them in, and it’s the people that can remove them.” Two of the current council members
are running for mayor in November. One of them is Solorio.
Anaheim Hills residents turn up the heat
In February, the Anaheim City Council reversed its approval of the Residences at Nohl Ranch, a 54-unit condo development that would have wiped out a popular neighborhood retail center in Anaheim Hills. In the EIR, the property owner claimed the center at Serrano Ave. and Nohl Ranch Road was “under utilized.” However, residents who showed up in large numbers painted a different picture. A neighborhood group Citizens Advocating Responsible Development (CARD) filed a lawsuit over what it called “inaccuracies” in the EIR. During the second reading, Councilmember Denise Barnes was the
swing vote that stopped the project from moving forward. “When residents keep showing up, citing
the same concerns and sharing the view that the process is unfair, then it is clear we are not offering
assurance to residents who trust us to make decisions that impact our long-term quality of life,” said Barnes. Council voted 3-3 to deny rezoning. It would have taken four votes to uphold it. Anaheim Mayor Pro Tem Stephen Faessel, who voted in favor of the development, is up for reelection, as is Barnes, who voted against it.
Showdown coming to Orange
Meanwhile, the battle rages on in Orange. The group Orange Citizens challenged the validity of the EIR by filing a lawsuit against the city and the developer, Milan Capital. After the successful referendum drive, Orange City Council had the same option to rescind its vote and extend the olive branch to angry citizens. Instead, it voted to put it on the ballot, fueling outrage heading into November, when Mayor Mark Murphy is up for reelection and several new district seats are to be decided.
One of those is District 3, located north of Collins Avenue and west of Tustin Street. This district hosts a popular recreation center at the Peralta School site that residents fought to keep when OUSD tried to sell the property to a developer. Current Mayor pro Tem Mike Alvarez terms out in November, but is running anyway in District 3, in defiance of the more than 80 percent of Orange voters that voted for term limits.
“People are becoming more active in politics,” warned Helvig. “You have to listen to the people you represent, or you’re not going to be in there again.”
Stephanie Lesinski is a resident of Mabury Ranch.
Owning a business in Orange, living in Orange, serving with the Chamber of Commerce, and being actively involved with community issues has given me a unique vantage point of city hall, the city council, and the community at large.
Our city is at a crossroads, especially as we transition into the district elections mandated by the court. Residents are upset by a long list of grievances that include:
I have witnessed three major mistakes made by our city council over the years, and I am perplexed that the resulting consequences have never been connected to these council errors:
1. The city council reversed the planning commission’s decision to close the Sully-Miller site.
In 2002, the planning commission voted to shut down the Sully-Miller site. The landowner, Hansen, appealed to the city council and proposed to continue operations for three years and then shut it down. But in 2003, the city council reversed the planning commission decision and allowed the operation to continue without accepting Hansen’s offer to close the site in three years.
Both Mark Murphy and Mike Alvarez were on the council. Had the city council simply accepted Hansen’s proposal, the entire mess that has transpired on the site would have been avoided.
The consequence of this shortsighted decision has allowed this site to illegally convert into a dumpsite, which city hall condoned. For over 12 years, residents have had to endure Milan’s bad behavior. Citizens are fed up with the council’s lack of leadership and have taken matters into their own hands. The county and the state have now intervened.
2. The city council updated the General Plan but failed to include East Orange.
In 2005, our city started the General Plan update but ignored all of East Orange, including its responsibility to address the proper land use of the Sully-Miller site since mining had ceased. This was the obvious time to reclaim the land to its former state and ensure that the zoning remained consistent with the open space vision of our General Plan and the Santiago Greenbelt Plan by rezoning it open space. The majority of the site is designated “Resource” in our General Plan. Resource allows for mining, agriculture and open space. But, nowhere in our General Plan does it support changing the resource designation to “Housing” despite assertions otherwise by developers.
The consequence of this shortsighted decision has created unnecessary conflict, confusion and uncertainty. It has forced citizens to fight city hall and exercise their referendum rights to put Measure AA on the ballot.
3. The city council was not proactive on district elections.
There is confusion as to why the city council was forced to increase to seven members with voting by districts. In 2017, the city was notified that it was in violation of the California Voting Rights Act.
However, the city council failed to address the issue head on. In fact, it exacerbated the situation when faced with a vacant council seat by setting up a special election in 2019, which got canceled by the courts.
The consequences of the council’s insensitivity and lack of inclusion resulted in a lawsuit against the city to instate voting by districts to protect the interests of Latinos. The costs to the city were $340,000 just for the plaintiff’s attorney fees. The subsequent change failed to include term limits for which Orange residents voted to enforce in 1996. And now, Mike Alvarez, who has termed out, is running for reelection.
Our city is in turmoil. Citizens are angry as they watch developers drive the issues in our town, with little concern for residents and our quality of life. The consequences of these shortsighted decisions need to be reversed. The only way to do that is a change of leadership. We have new people stepping up and are willing to serve without pay. I recommend we stay away from recycled politicians and vote in community-minded leaders for our city council.
Laura Thomas has been an Orange resident for 38 years. She served two terms as president of the Orange Park Association.