17 October 2008

Stonefield Housing Project Community Meeting Summary

Last night at the council chambers of Chino Hills City Hall, a community meeting was held concerning the proposed Stonefield housing project (project site above looking west from Carbon Canyon Road at the hairpin turn), a gated 28-home community of homes in the 4,000 to 5,000 square foot range on lots that run from a little under 10,000 to just below 20,000 square feet. In this respect, Stonefield is definitely a microcosm (under 1/5 smaller in scope) of Canyon Crest in the gated, luxury housing market.

There were about two dozen persons in attendance, although half of them were city staff, developer representatives and the "environmental consultant," a term that I find disingenuous because it suggests that you have someone who is environmentally-conscious, when, instead, this person is a city or developer hired contractor who completes the environmental impact report. I would love to know just how often these consultants come back with a report that, in essence, says, "I believe this project is not feasible for this site and should not be developed." I'm going to go out on a limb (of a tree that will be hacked down for these housing projects) and suggest that it almost never happens.

Just like when unavoidable, significant, adverse impacts are identified (as with Stonefield) in the California Environmental Quality Act, it almost never happens that governments (cities, counties, states) will then, in essence, say, "We believe that there are no ways to mitigate these impacts or that the mitigation measures proposed are not even exchanges, therefore we are declining to issue a Statement of Overriding Considerations." Now, if I can be proved wrong and if someone can show that there is a regular occurrence of EIRs that recommend discontinuing projects or that government entities accept unavoidable, significant, adverse impacts and refuse to issue SOCs, then so be it. The reality is: mitigation measures for these impacts are almost always like trading or buying carbon offsets and credits, in which corporations and wealthy individuals can assuage their guilt for massive carbon emissions by buying credits or trading offsets. They attempt to paper over the problems by promising to promote alternative benefits. As bad as climate change is, however, and as terrible as our local pollution is, there is almost never a way to adequately mitigate air quality. Yet, human beings are so easily able to rationalize and justify their actions and state government conveniently provided a massive loophole in the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), that it has become virtually a matter of policy for governments to issue their SOCs and not have to worry about justifying it in anything more than a shallow, surface-level manner, because there is no accountability to a higher authority.

Unless, unless, there is a massive citizen outpouring, intense media attention, and other reactive measures that force a bright light onto the inadvisability of a project. Then, there is a chance for denial. Sadly, there is not nearly as likely with a "small" project like Stonefield, as compared to, say, Canyon Crest. But as some community members reminded us last night, the Pine Valley Estates project within the canyon isn't coming together as promised. This just isn't in turn of the project's stalled status because of the economy and housing market standstill, but because promises with respect to hillside and ridge protections wound up being compromised.

The meeting largely consisted of the "environmental consultant" explaining that, of the eight criteria analyzed in the draft EIR, two were found to be unavoidable, significant, adverse impacts: aesthetics and air quality. On the former, there were four criteria of concern: 1) open land views; 2) grading and vegetation removal as pertains to the proximity of the project to Carbon Canyon Road as a "potential scenic highway"; and 3) and 4) relating to different aspects of visual character. On air quality, the concern was with construction grading. I haven't examined the CD copy of the EIR that I received last night, so won't comment yet on the specifics. Needless to say, city staff will be presenting mitigation measures and recommending a Statement of Overriding Considerations and we'll see what is being proposed.

There are two other issues, however, that have great bearing on this and any other project in the canyon: traffic and water. Again, I'll have to look at the EIR to see why traffic (the study was conducted in September 2007) was considered not to be a major impact, but suspect that, because there are 28 proposed home with about 90 residents and about 280 car trips per day, none of this is considered significant. In isolation, that would appear to be true. Once again, though, Carbon Canyon Road is "F" rated, it is beyond its designed capacity. There is no way to widen it to accommodate more cars. Consequently, any addition of traffic, no matter how small it seems out of context is simply unacceptable. Mitigation measures will not make the problem better.

Now, there will be some explanation in the EIR about how there is sufficient water supply for this project (again, 4-5,000 square foot homes on 10-20,000 square foot lots means roughly double the Chino Hills home average and, therefore, about double the water use.) But, if we're being asked to voluntarily conserve water and are looking at the very likely probability of forced rationing next year should rainfall and Sierra Nevada Mountains snow pack not be far above average in coming years, why shouldn't there be a moratorium on new housing construction?. Besides, supplies from the Sacramento River delta to southern California are being cut by court order and a federal mediation over the Colorado River dispute among California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah has not, to my knowledge, been worked out yet. And, if some climatologists are correct, and we're in the midst of a 20 or 30 year drought cycle, it would be sound public policy to issue a moratorium until our reservoirs and rivers such as the Colorado, almost all of which are well below capacity, are at a healthier level.

There was some significant commentary at the meeting, mainly offered by four or five persons who live in nearby homes, such as in Carriage Hills, or adjacent properties off Carbon Canyon Road. Their comments were focused on views, lighting, and, especially, safety pertaining to Carbon Canyon Road. There was also a fair amount of time devoted to the fact that the bowl-shaped terrain that characterizes most of the property will be filled, compacted and graded so that much of the development would be very near, at, or, in some cases, above the level of Carbon Canyon Road, which raises legitimate questions as to view, significant settling and movement, and safety should cars careen, as they've been known to do (though not as often as some speakers suggested), off the highway and into the immaculately manicured yard or well-appointed living room of one of these luxury houses. I am actually bothered by an overmanipulation of natural landforms, so that the quality of the canyon setting is seriously compromised by man's misguided desire to "conquer" nature.

This includes plans to "bury" a drainage course that runs from the site into Carbon [Canyon] Creek, a course that the project engineer stated was for runoff from the Carriage Hills tract above the Stonefield site. The fact is that course follows a natural pattern of runoff in the hills and any transformation of it would be affecting the natural quality of the canyon that draws people to live there in the first place. Sure, pipes would be laid under a bedrock of dirt to direct the runoff to the creek downstream at the golf course, but can anyone seriously suggest that hacking away at even a relatively small portion of a drainage course that leads to a natural creek (even if its contents aren't natural, consisting of runoff with who knows what floating in it) is an enhancement for the canyon? Now, the Army Corps of Engineers and state Department of Fish and Game were, in the Chino Hills Champion anyway, said to have to approve this request to "bury" the course, but at the meeting city officials and the environmental consultant suggested that it wasn't a matter of approval, but of recommending mitigation so that the "burial" could be conducted in the right way from an engineering standpoint.

Engineering nature proves to be a lot trickier and less benign than it is passed of as, which segues to my next point. The project engineer stated, as they all do, in response to a comment from a resident, that the cutting, filling, grading, and compaction would be done so that the danger of slippage and failure of hillsides would be unlikely to occur. All that needs to be said to that is: look at all the recently-built hillside homes in Yorba Linda, Anaheim Hills, Laguna Beach, Malibu and other places and then go and find out what project engineers and geotechnical consultants said about the durability of these "manipulations" of inherently unstable hillside environments. And, who gets sued when these areas experience slides and red-tagged homes? The city.

To conclude, the project engineer was blunt: this development would not commence in 2009 as originally projected and he was pretty clear in saying that they would not build until is was economically feasible to do so. There is a statute requiring that final map be issued within a certain time frame (three years, I think) from the date of approval, but, once that map is certified, it's apparently good for good. This means that, whatever happens with traffic, water, funding for schools and other infrastructure, the project is viable at any future time and the land is much more valuable for resale with that approved tract map behind it.

The fundamental issue is unresolvable: Carbon Canyon Road is far beyond capacity, any additional traffic introduced by new housing developments within the canyon exacerbates the problem, and a mitigation "trade-off" doesn't address the problem. For this reason, there should be a moratorium on all future large-scale (aside from the occasional individual home within an established subdivision or on a discrete property) development.

As for water, until we have a situation where water storage is not far below normal, as it now is, and in which current residents are being asked to voluntarily curtail water use or forced to restrict it, there should be a moratorium on projects anywhere where these conditions exist. It is terrible public policy to permit further development in this scenario.

The problem: state law is crafted precisely to favor development and the massive loophole of the Statement of Overriding Considerations in CEQA facilitates that imbalance. When private property rights (not, to borrow from the recent presidential debate, of a "Joe the Plumber" variety, but rather of conglomerates and well-funded and heavily capitalized individuals) run roughshod over societal impacts, something has to give. Why should it continue to be the rest of us who have to deal with the further negative impacts of sprawl and overbuilding precisely as resources and infrastructure diminish?

Coming soon: a further commentary on the EIR.

And, don't forget: public comment on Stonefield concludes 30 October with the Planning Commission public hearing tentatively scheduled for 16 December.


Canyonnative said...

Paul -

I am going to focus on the increasing water shortage in Southern California and the need for local governments to heed the warnings when planning. I'll do this during "Matters from the Audience" at the hearing in Brea, Tuesday eve.

Can Brea residents be of help in the Stonefield issue? Let me know.

Hope to see you and other Chino Hills residents Tuesday at the hearing.


Paul said...

Hello Ann, I am going to have to skip this Tuesday, because I'll be out of town at the end of the week and need to take on more parenting duties at the front end! I do plan to attend, however, on the 29th when the full council is at the special meeting.

On Stonefield, I think it would definitely be good to have Brea residents there to discuss many of the same issues as with Canyon Crest, but in microcosm. In the case of Stonefield (and everything else), water usage and traffic are big issues, though, as you've probably seen, aesthetics is an EIR-identified impact. Public comment closes on 30 October, so Canyonites on the Brea side can start there and we'll see if the Planning Commission meeting does meet on 16 December as tentatively scheduled.