21 July 2009

Stonefield Development Planning Commission Public Hearing

Tonight was a public hearing before the Chino Hills Planning Commission concerning the 28-unit Stonefield development proposed at the northeast corner of Carbon Canyon Road (SR-142) and Fairway Drive within Carbon Canyon.

There was a notable development in the form of a last-minute change of mind from CalTrans about a proposed mitigation measure for traffic, despite the fact that this issue was not identified as a significant, unavoidable adverse impact under the CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) review for the EIR (Environmental Impact Report). Simply put, CalTrans no longer believes that widening and restriping Carbon Canyon Road at Fairway Drive to allow for acceleration lanes for Fairway Drive traffic onto the highway and other improvements related to easier turning onto Fairway or Ginseng Lane, the continuation of Fairway to the south, is desirable.

Consequently, Stonefield has informed the city that, while it is still willing to carry out this mitigation measure

the improvement alternatives now preferred by Caltrans are beyond the scope of the Project's responsibility in terms of scale, cost, and reasonable relationship.


Stonefield believes that the best course would be for the City to adopt a Statement of Overriding Conditions [should be "Considerations"] finding that the cumulative impacts that would result [at?] Carbon Canyon Road/Fairway Drive-Ginseng Lane in the absence of mitigation . . . are acceptable in light of the City's current objective of maintaining the semi-rural character and aesthetics of the area by avoiding traffic signals and road widenings.

[Quotes are from a letter, dated today, by Stonefield attorneys Greenberg Traurig, LLP to Chino Hills Assistant City Attorney Brad Wohlenberg and Senior Planner Betty Donavanik.]

What this seems to mean and was supported by comments made by a Stonefield representative at the meeting tonight, is that the developer either supports the widening as proposed in the mitigation measure (which CalTrans now rejects), which seems contradictory to the last sentence in the above quote, or advocates doing nothing, because there are only 28 hours and only a small number (21 in the AM and 29 in PM peak hour) of car trips generated by the development.

Moreover, because the project is calculated to only add 1.5% more traffic to the already-congested highway, mitigations now preferred by CalTrans include significant changes via grading of the slope of the road or by a significant retaining wall addition in the project area on Carbon Canyon Road would cost between $2 million and $3.5 million. Stonefield's position in this matter is that, because of the 1.5% factor, its "fair share" costs would only amount to $30,000 to $53,000 of the total projected for these two improvements, the remainder falling to the city. Moreover, the developer's attorneys cite one state and two federal supreme court cases concerning reasonable fees charged to developers that "must also be proportional to the impact of the proposed development."

The other main point of discussion tonight seemed to revolve mainly around the question of aesthetics, especially concerning 1) landscaping requirements to avoid the "moonscape" scenario now found in the barren slopes of the stalled Pine Valley Estates development and 2) concerns about the view from Carbon Canyon Road at the top of the S-curve (or hairpin) looking westward and the fact that several homes would be obscuring that view.

City staff have sought to assure the Commission that every effort would be made to facilitate early planting on slopes, even though it has been established that water lines would be among the very last utility components to be installed on tbe project site. Concerning the view, a point raised notably by Commissioner Karen Bristow, this has been a priority for Carbon Canyon residents since 1980 in terms of county and city planning (i.e. the General and Specific plans) processes. Commissioner Bristow, however, also stated, after noting that sometimes residents don't get what they want in developments (80% of which, in her estimation, have gone very well in the city), that at least the view would be there as drivers descend westward from the summit of the S-curve/hairpin. One has to wonder, though, if that would satisfy the question of preserving the view from the best viewshed possible, which is from the summit itself!

At any rate, staff indicated that they would work with the developer on questions of visibility in terms of landscape (hard and soft), but that there was no feasible way to lower pads (and, therefore, house heights) to accomodate these concerns. Moreover, as the developer's representative stated, a final landscape plan would not be possible until the project was much further along, so, for the benefit of the Planning Commission, only general conceptual matter could be generated.

Before CalTrans' bombshell announcement, city staff was poised to recommend that the Commission approve the adoption of the EIR, the Statement of Overriding Considerations concerning aesthetics, traffic and grading pollution, and approve the tract map, design review and a minor variance concerning higher retaining walls for certain lots within the proposed development. With the CalTrans shift in thinking, however, staff has now recommended that they be given the opportunity to go back and rethink mitigation strategies on the Carbon Canyon Road/Fairway Drive intersection and then report to the Commission on proposed next steps by the 18 August meeting.

There were a number of speakers from the public, perhaps a dozen, and only one expressed unmitigated (pardon the pun) support for the project. Most, almost all being residents of the immediate area (Carriage Hills, Western Hills Mobile Home Park, etc.), registered opposition, either to the entire project or to its current concept, which has been scaled back from a 46-unit development approved by the County back in the glory days of the 1980s real estate boom. These public comments tended to focus on aesthetics, grading and traffic, as expected.

I arrived when the meeting was about 1 hour and 15 minutes along and missed most of the developer's presentation, but took the opportunity to speak after those who'd signed up before the meeting had their chance. Not wishing to repeat previously-expressed concerns, I focused on the broader context of approved and proposed development within the Canyon. Namely, I ticked off the list of projects: Pine Valley Estates (98 units); Canyon Hills (76); Stonefield (28); unnamed tract near Canyon Hills (110) and Canyon Crest in Brea (165.) There could, then, potentially be 477 new houses within the Canyon over time (I was sure to sat that "not all of them may be built and certainly none of them for some time to come. But, they are future issues to deal with.") My main point was to state that

it's one thing to look narrowly in isolation at the impacts of Stonefield for what is required by law . . . [as opposed to} broadly in context . . . for what is reasonable in perspective.

But, here we are with 312 possible homes on the Carbon Canyon side, 164 of which are already approved and we meet a contradiction embodied in a statement that is the very first thing seen on the Chino Hills web site:

Chino Hills is well known for its high quality of life and beautiful rural atmosphere.

Ironically, the Stonefield representative, at least twice, and the developer's attorneys in the aforementioned letter, made reference to the CalTrans change in position representing a transformation of the rural character of the area for "very little benefit."

City staff has listed four benefits justifying Statements of Overriding Consideration, being 1) additional housing opportunities within the city in the "Upper Income category" [shades of Canyon Crest!); 2) compatibility with existing (as opposed to future?) land uses; 3) maintaining the scenic qualities of Carbon Canyon (via manufactured slopes and homes 2 1/2 times the average square footage of existing newer homes, which are already near double those of average homes in 1970); and 4) traffic improvements at the Carbon Canyon Road/Fairway Drive-Ginseng Lane intersection (yet. deemed not significant in the EIR).

The fundamental question (at last) arrives: What do these general City-wide benefits have to do with the actual effects within Carbon Canyon? To permanently alter the "beautiful rural atmosphere" of the Canyon, create more pollution than AQMD thresholds call for, and add more traffic to an already-overburdened Carbon Canyon Road (even if you accept that the 1.5% more traffic generated by Stonefield is the fair way to examine the traffic question) is to further compromise that "beautiful rural atmosphere" the City so proudly touts.

So, the unscripted conclusion to my remarks was essentially:

The representative for Stonefield indicates that CalTrans mitigation measures represents 'transforming the area for very little benefit'. Couldn't the same be said about this project, that it transforms Carbon Canyon for very little benefit?

Notably, the Commission Chair Adam Eliason made a point of stating that there had been prior approval of a tract map for this project, and in so stating, implied that development of this "entitled" parcel was unavoidable and that all the Commission could do was to use whatever "rights" it had to ensure a quality project. When Commissioner Michael Braun asked Community Services Director Christine Kelly if Stonefield was a project that could be denied by the Commission, she didn't actually answer the question, but went on, rather, to discuss the question of staff recommendations regarding the Statements of Overriding Considerations and what the Commission sees from the benefits suggested by staff (the four items noted above.)

After the meeting, I approached the Chair and had a cordial discussion with him, with my question hinging upon whether this project could be denied based on the unavoidable signficant adverse impacts identified in the EIR under CEQA review. Interestingly, there seemed to be a little uncertainty about the grounds for denial, but there is, actually, no question.

The fact is: if CEQA identified significant, unavoidable impacts that cannot be fully mitigated, and this project has two (pollution from grading and aesthetics), the local authority (i. e., the City) can reject the project out of hand.

Yet, staff has been very accomodating to the developer, which has, admittedly, come up with a scaled-down, handsomely-designed development, to the extent of even recommending mitigation for traffic when not really compelled to do so by the EIR. Still, pollution can only, if mitigation was to actually be complied with or work, reduced from 40% to 15% over AQMD thresholds and the aesthetic issue cannot be mitigated at all.

Hence, the Statements of Overriding Considerations and their expressed benefits: luxury housing (4,000 to 5,500 square feet on lots from 12,000 to 37,000 square feet); compatibility with existing land use (which provides what benefits exactly?); maintaining scenic qualities (via half of the parcel for open space as a "visual amenity for the community" and "a fuel modification zone for the project and other residences nearby" [meaning, if you build on virgin land, this reduces the risk of wildland fires); and 4) the traffic improvements for Carbon Canyon Road, to which CalTrans no longer is receptive.

So, one benefit has apparently been lost or is at least "off course" and the other three are intangible or marginally so. What about the cost of maintenance and infrastructure accruing to the city over time (schools, fire and police service, sewers and water) vis á vis property tax revenue? And, more important, as stated above, how can you mitigate the loss of a part of a unique canyon, including a viewshed deemed important by city residents for about three decades now?

It is important to say that there is nothing expressed by me here or elsewhere that is personal to anyone on city staff, the Planning Commission, or the developer. As Chair Eliason said, the County approved a tentative tract map for 46 homes on this site twenty years ago and he all but said that it will be impossible to stop this project, whatever final form it assumes. Whether that is really so by law, legal precedent or the city's philosophy remains to be seen. I know CEQA's provisions about environmental impacts provides grounds for both denial and approval, pending the willingness of the government authority in question to subscribe to Statements of Overriding Consideration or not. So, the Commission could deny this project if it wished.

The question is: does it really see the benefits being that much greater than the impacts? Residents who spoke at the October public meeting and tonight's Commission meeting overwhelmingly said no, but that, frankly, may have absolutely no impact on the decision of the Commission.

So, the next step is for staff to revisit the traffic matter, as well as some landscaping and view issues, and report to the Commission possible courses for action, including, possible, a Recirculated Draft EIR (the dreaded RDEIR), which would extend the process another 45 days for further public comment. There may be some action at the 18 August meeting, but, we were warned, there may not be, depending on what staff is able to do. It is important to state that, via Chair Eliason, there was no mincing words about the Commission's desire to expedite the process as quickly as possible, which raises issues about due deliberation to allow for careful examination by all interested parties, including the public (this has been a two-year process for the developer, which, frankly, is a blip on the radar screen compared to some projects!)

For those interested in this development and the future of Carbon Canyon generally, stay tuned. Any reported news will be certainly be covered in the Chronicle!

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