01 July 2008

It's Only 166 (oops, 165) Homes, Redux

All right, I erred once more--there is actually one less home in the luxury tract home development called Canyon Crest on the Brea side of Carbon Canyon. There's your errata for the day.
Onto the update: I spent a good part of today reviewing over 500 pages of documents (sometimes you wonder if the mass of paper is a tool to discourage citizen involvement in the planning process!) relating to staff reports on the project. I know, I know--couldn't I have spent my time on something FUN?

When it comes down to brass tacks (I love these metaphors, especially the ones of which I know nothing as to how they came to be used), though, this project has gotten as far as it has because the City of Brea wants it to happen, not because the majority of its citizens (the people who elect the council and for whom the staff and planning commission ostensibly work) want it.
The sheer fact is that the Recirculated Draft Environmental Impact Report (RDEIR) gave three reasons, that is, unavoidable, significant adverse environmental impacts, why the city could reject the project without, unless someone can explain otherwise, legal recrimination by the developer. YET, the staff went ahead and recommended that the city issue a "Statement of Overriding Considerations" that would trump these three impacts because the city believed that the project was, thereby, beneficial and valuable.

What are these considerations? Well, let's quote, shall we, from the "City of Brea Planning Commission Staff Report, DR 08-01, TT 15956, and EIR 02-01," at page 8:
"These include considerations such as the project's contribution of a new Type 1 Fire Engine to the City, its conservation of approximately 280 acres of open space land, funding for trails and park master plan implementation, funding for City revenues via payment of one-time fees and recurring annual revenues, as well as assistance with meeting affordable housing goals (most likely through housing fund in-lieu fee contributions."

In other words, these benefits outweight the unavoidable significant adverse impacts of airborne particulate matter pollution from one year [quite possible more!] of grading, the loss of already nearly-vanished oak and walnut woodland habitat, and the increase of traffic on Carbon Canyon Road.

To go back to my earlier point, however, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) allows for projects to be rejected for any single unavoidable significant adverse impact. At the same time, the law gives local governments the proverbial "easy out" loophole in the form of the "State of Overriding Considerations." There was an article on this in the Los Angeles Times just a few weeks ago (try an online search at www.latimes.com)

Oh, there is one other consideration that is being overriden: the will of the citizens for whom city staff, the planning commission, and the city council ostensibly (love that word!) work. I'll go back to what I said in an earlier post: there were dozens of citizens who spoke about Canyon Crest at the 22 April Planning Commission meeting, all of which loudly and vehemently registered their complete and total opposition of this project, excepting one half-hearted, "sort of" endorsement. Staff reports, available from the City of Brea website (use the link in this blog to get you started) include a total of 50+ written responses, most from citizens of Brea and Chino Hills, NONE (I repeat, NONE) of which offered any support for this project. There was one couple who said they didn't care what Canyon Crest did as long as they didn't run construction traffic through Olinda Village.
But, for page after mind-numbing page, city staff carefully dissected the arguments (some technical, some artful, some neither but hearfelt) and dismantled every one of them in a fabulously legalistic and formalistic defense of this project. It was all about why the developer meets city standards, rather than, say, why they're so deeply, passionately and personally invested in the long-term viability and health of the community.
Again, the city makes the claim that this is a good project for the reasons elucidated above from the Planning Commission Staff Report. What isn't spoken (often as telling or more so than what is) is that the city is bending over backwards (thereby, avoiding the gaze of its citizenry) to assist the developer. I suppose another unspoken reason is that the city hungrily eyes these homes, planned to be sold for between $1.4 million and $4 million, because it would make Brea more like its neighbors in Yorba Linda and Anaheim Hills or to aspire to be more like Coto de Caza, Rancho Santa Margarita, Newport Coast, ad infinitum, among the creme de la creme of the O.C.'s elite residential enclaves.
As I said before, if there is a legal reason why the "Statement of Overriding Considerations" is not just necessary, but imperative, well, that's something that'll have to be explained by the City Council, assuming that the Planning Commission has approved the RDEIR. Otherwise, to put the developer's ambitions and the city's expressed list of benefits derived from the project OVER AND ABOVE the will, desire, and feelings of its citizens seems nothing less than a contradiction of the highest order.

When (not if, I would guess) this moves on to the City Council, I would hope the focus of the discussion will be precisely about why the city issued the "Statement of Overriding Considerations" when it didn't have to; why it chose this project over protecting a rare natural resource; and why it seems blithely unaware that projections of traffic, water, pollution and other real issues in a very local project should be measured against the greater reality of the challenges we face with those and other issues in California, the West, the US and, yes, the planet.

Then again, that's not for Brea to worry about, is it? City staff, the planning commission, and the City Council are not legally charged with the duty to worry about the "wider world," right? Of course, no one really is. We'd have to choose to make that decision, which involves a certain amount of fortitude and, I suppose, courage.

The question speakers at a future City Council might want to ask its elected representatives is: do you have the courage to reject the "Statement of Overriding Considerations" and, therefore, the Canyon Crest project because it fails the CEQA test; fails to inspire the slightest support of the vast majority of Brea residents; guts a significant portion of some of the last remaining natural environment of our region; creates unacceptable levels of airborne particulate matter; and increases (even what seems a paltry 5% of 2005 numbers, now three years old and increasingly outdated) traffic levels on a greatly overcrowded road not built for its current uses.
By the way, that fancy new message board the developer will help pay for is aimed to tell motorists what other options there are for heading east at rush hour. Ummm, that would be the 91 Freeway, a fantastic alternative, the 57/60 route, which is only slightly better, and Grand Avenue through Diamond Bar and Chino Hills, which ain't so grand either.

On top of this, these massive homes, their landscaping, and community landscaping will gobble up many times more water than the typical Brea household in an era where water resources are declining and more thinly spread from competing interests.
AND, because of drought conditions, there is a very real fire risk that would imperil these homes and their residents, as well as every one else in the canyon (know that, historically, most fires have started on the Brea side and raced eastward). Not to get hysterical about this, but escape routes for residents and ingress for emergency vehicles could get a lot more difficult in the west end of the canyon (unlike the Chino Hills side, where there are now two new escape routes). That shiny new red fire engine could compete with morning or evening commuter traffic.
Disaster scenarios (oh, what about earthquake, plague, locusts?) aside, this project is just irresponsible as we confront the confounding contradictions of our hellbent development paradigm which has run largely unstopped for at least eighty years. Like fossil fuels, unbridled development has run into the problem of being increasingly unsustainable. A stand has got to be made somwhere.
If Brea is going to be sued anyway, by project opponents or by the developer, why not support its citizens, take the position that this project should be rejected because of CEQA impacts, and bite the bullet? Otherwise, is loading the gun for the developer the way to face the future?

Until next time . . .

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