15 July 2009

Stonefield Housing Project EIR Response to Comments

Over the last weekend, a response to comments offered by sixteen individuals and state agencies concerning the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for the 28-unit Stonefield ousing project, was mailed out to those who participated in community meetings (the last held 16 October 2008). In the document, staff from the Chino Hills Planning Department carefully and methodically reviewed the sixteen sets of comments and offered the department's position accordingly. Sorry for the excessive excursion that follows, but the stakes are high and are far more than about this relatively small project when it comes to the context of projected development with Carbon Canyon.

Now, the DEIR identified two areas in which significant, unavoidable impacts were noted under the review mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), these being affects in aesthetics and in pollutants generating by grading. In addition, there were areas of concern expressed in some of the sixteen comments about water use and availability and traffic, neither of which were deemed significant, unavoidable impacts in the DEIR.

Regarding traffic, there were six study intersections in and around the project area, which is at Fairway Drive and Carbon Canyon Road, just east of Western Hills Country Club. at which traffic counts were made in September 2007 (now nearly two years old already) and supplementally in May 2008.

The DEIR stated that, at four or the six intersections, the Level of Service (LOS) was at the E or F level (both of which are considered highly congested) during peak AM and PM hours.

So, the Planning Deparment's suggested mitigation? "widen and restripe Carbon Canyon Road at Fairway Drive to provide a southbound [actually, Carbon Canyon Road is an east/west highway, so it should be westbound!] acceleration lane for Fairway Drive traffic onto Carbon Canyon Road . . ." and having a "northbound [that is, eastbound] acceleration (refuge) lane on Carbon Canyon Road for vehicles turning left from Fairway Drive."

And, yet, for a reason that can only be a parallel to the current "cap and trade" phenomenon for global climate change mitigation, the developer is being asked to pay a "fair share" towards the addition of traffic signals at the intersections of Carbon Canyon Road at Canon Lane and at Canyon Hills Drive. Now, there is already an imminent installation of a signal on Carbon Canyon Road in Olinda Village and here are two more proposed signals on the Chino Hills side of the Canyon. We'll return to the implications of this below.

In response to comments about traffic collisions on Carbon Canyon Road, staff indicated that a review of data from the county Sheriff's department shows that there have been 68 traffic accidents reported from January 2003 through December 2008, with "the majority [40 of 68 or a little under 60%] . . . due to vehicles traveling at unsafe speeds." And, we can assume that acceleration/refuge lanes on the widened, restriped section of the highway at Fairway Drive will account for this condition of unsafe speed?

Notably, staff indicates that the accident rate on Carbon Canyon Road, at 0.69 accidents per million vehicle miles (now, there's a way to make accident rates look insignificant--a million vehicle miles!), is almost 2/3 less than "the statewide average accident rate (1.90 accidnts per million vehicle miles) for similar type roadways," according to CalTrans. We'll just have to accept the source, but one has to wonder what constitutes "similar type roadways"? State highways vary widely, from two-lane, narrow, canyon roads like Carbon Canyon Road to major freeways.

Moreover, staff continues, "accident rates have generally been lower [the past two years] than in prior years. Hence, it is clear that the accident rates have not increased in relation to the increase in traffic volumes . . ."

Another question to be raised: there is the qualitative, as well as the quantitative, aspect of accidents to be considered? In other words, how many of the 68 reported accidents have included fatalities, serious injury, public and private property damage? A good look at the intersection of Fairway Drive and Carbon Canyon Road, moreover, shows clearly why there is no suggested mitigation in the form of a traffic signal--the road curves on both sides and there is not enough room for a light that is readily visible in both directions. The assumption that these acceleration/refuge lanes are going to mitigate potential traffic problems should also be coupled with the amount of work needed to widen the road at this point.

With respect to water, here's a fascinating rationale that seems completely antithetical to everything we're being told now about water availability and use. Staff states that "the maximum daily demand water supply capacity requirement for 2010 is 29.10 million gallons per day (MGD), whereas the capacity available is 41.14 MGD." Not only that, but the figure for 2020 is 31.25 demand and 48.94 supply and for 2025 (slated for Chino Hills's buildout date--that open-ended year when all building is supposed to stop forever, or at least until the General Plan is amended) it is 32.86 demand and 48.94 available. Consequently, we are assured, "suffficient water supply is available for the development."

Then, why, if demand is only 70% of capacity next year and will only, supposedly, be slightly less 16 years from now--WHY ARE WE BEING ASKED BY OUR CITY AND WATER AUTHORITY TO CUT BACK WATER USE BY 20% NOW and why is everyone talking about prolonged drought from low snowpack in the Sierras, cutbacks on shipments from the Colorado River and from the Sacramento River Delta, and other pressing issues? If we are told that we have 12.04 million gallons per day of water UNTIL WE REACH CAPACITY, then why all the urgency to conserve!

Well, here's the answer [or so we are told]: "The existing demands are based on actual observed water use ["derived from observed water use during one of the driest prolonged periods on record (2002), and they are believed to be representative of a 'worse case' water demand environment"], with future demands estimated from reasonable demand coefficients applied to various categories of land use." Moreover, because the General Plan actually allows up to 208 units on them property (which is only 34.73 acres), but this project calls for only 28, so water is obviously not at all an issue for this development and, seemingly, not a problem for the city, even as we are being told to cut use now. With the actual significant, unavoidable impacts, the solution, staff tells us, is very simple.

On aesthetics, it is a simple matter of understanding that "conversion of vacant land to developed land, in and of itself, will result in significant aesthetic impacts." Moreover, in several places staff comments refer to the project as part of "the conversion of the open land to urban uses."

The term "urban uses" is used as if it was a given, an inevitability, a certainty. The problem: this is Carbon Canyon we're talking about! This, in fact, is a place of uniqueness within Chino Hills, that has intrinsic value [not dollar, however, which is the true key to the entire process here] as a canyon setting.

By casually transmuting the rural nature of the canyon [and doesn't the city constantly pride itself on maintaining a "rural" atmosphere?] into "urban uses," there is a subtle, but explicit statement here that the Canyon doesn't have value unless it becomes a place that accepts "urban uses."

Given that the vast majority of our region has been converted to "urban uses" and treated as a necessary good, there is an insidiousness about this terminology that belies what makes Carbon Canyon what it is (some day, however, we'll be saying what it was).

Further, there is another invidious corruption of terminology in the phrase "open space," especially when what often is determined to be "open space" includes the term "manufactured slopes." Again, Carbon Canyon has a unique and appealing natural setting and people appreciate those barren, useless [economically speaking, of course] hillsides and the oak trees and everything else that constitutes that natural environment within it. How on earth can anyone with seriousness and merit argue that "manufactured slopes" is a suitable replacement for the natural environment in a place like Carbon Canyon? To borrow from the "cap and trade" analogy once more: you can't trade natural, rural hillsides for "urban uses" like "manufactured slopes." It just is not the same!

In a discussion about overriding the aesthetics impacts, staff note that "a project may be approved after the lead agency adopts a statement of overriding considerations [SOC] after weighing the overall benefits of a proposed project against its unavoidable environmental risks." Now, it is not the role of staff at this juncture to weigh in on the benefits, though they are charged to do so when it comes to the environmental risks and the inevitable (because, really, they almost always are) suggested mitigations.

And, what, typically, are these benefits? Actually, some are recommended in this document: a "fair share" towards those traffic signals that will, allegedly, improve traffic in the canyon and money directed to parks and open space within the city. In other cases, it might be a fire engine or money for low-income housing or other programs. But, what does that have to do with the environmental risks and the permanent effects of the project on Carbon Canyon? Truthfully, nothing (and, we're back to the old "cap and trade" discussion yet again.)

When it comes to aesthetics, here's the deal: when this project chews up natural landscape, germane and endemic naturally to the Canyon, the replacement via "manufactured slopes" is a direct one-to-one replacement? If you pretty it up (because, after all, aren't trees and bushes and shrubs better than grass and weeds?) the mitigation is, to borrow a common term from these staff reports, adequate.

Finally, there is pollution from grading. Despite the fact that the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area generally enjoys (!) the worse pollution in the United States and has for over 50 years, though Houston and Fresno are trying hard to take the #1 spot away, staff indicate that "grading is short-term and even though emissions are above the SCAQMD [meaning the South Coast Air Quality Management District] regional signficance thresholds," suggested mitigation that grading will be halted when air quality is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups and there are five other mitigation measures dealing with the kinds of equipment used and others.

In fact, we learn that, while emissions would be 40% over the thresholds before mitigation, we can all rejoice in the fact that, post-mitigation, emissions will only be 12% over, as if this is somehow a benefit! It should be added that SCAQMD thresholds are hardly anywhere near where they should actually be, not unlike when the federal government continues to define poverty levels or unemployment datas using criteria that are badly out-of-date. But, you see, that leads us to believe that there is less poverty and joblessness than there actually is and, naturally in this particular case, less pollution.

The reality is: we are inundated with unhealthy air and have been since the 1940s. We've made strides in the last couple of decades or more, but it simply isn't enough. Our air quality is no longer horrible, it's just bad, hardly a point of celebration! To rationalize matters by suggesting that it's OK to exceed thresholds by 12% after mitigation, assuming, of course, that there is actual successful monitoring, is just bad public policy.

Just like it's bad public policy to demand water conservation while suggesting that, for this project, there is plenty of water.

Just like it's bad public policy to say that, while Carbon Canyon Road is rated E or F in traffic volume, there are only 28 homes and only 280 daily car trips (never mind that another 300+ homes are being proposed in the Canyon), so the impact is neglible, but we'll go ahead and recommend mitigation anyway in the form of a widened highway and traffic signals down the road a piece.

Just like it's bad public policy to suggest that manufactured slopes compensate for the loss of natural landscape.

Just like it's bad public policy to say that "urban uses" are an imperative to which we have to sacrifice a little more of the Canyon each time these "urban uses" are implemented.

Just like it's bad public policy to conveniently invoke phrases that suggest that other developments completed or proposed with Carbon Canyon are "separate" and, therefore, emasculates the importance of context.

And this is where CEQA and state and federal law, while giving general lip service to the idea of environmental protection, aid and protect developers far more than the general needs of the community. This isn't to say that there isn't protection of natural resources, but, in far too many cases, it's a supreme battle to save any open space or create parklands or preserves when developers and investors are lusting after open land.

Because for all of the fancy display boards and conceptual drawings and all the promises of thousands or millions of dollars in "cap and trade" type mitigation and developers fees, the reality is that developers are only interested in a project for its profit and community engagement amounts to little more than a small and grudingly necessary expenditure on an investment. Further, absent a more equitable distribution of property tax revenue to cities, residential home projects are a drain on the coffers of almost any city.

This takes us back to the question raised, but not adequately (to borrow that term again) answered, by staff in this response document: what are "the overall benefits of a proposed projects against its unavoidable environmental risks." Is it the status of having "executive" housing? Is it having those two traffic signals that will, allegedly, improve traffic in the canyon? Is it the money that the developer will have to pay for parks within the city?

What about the alteration of the fundamental character that makes Carbon Canyon unique--the open space, the rural feel [the same rural nature the city openly touts]? It all comes down to that suspect phraseology tied into "urban uses." Is that really the goal here--to convert Carbon Canyon from a rural to an urban place, like the 90% or more of the greater Los Angeles area?

Certainly, staff and our elected and appointed officials would look askance and vigorously deny any such assertion. But, how in the world can you add traffic signals and "manufactured slopes" and widen the roadway and add more tract houses and honestly and transparently conclude otherwise? The reality is: you can't, you just can't.

If the benefits of more money and traffic lights and prestige in housing stock trumps the very nature of Carbon Canyon itself, then the City of Chino Hills needs to stop proclaiming its commitment to the rural feel of the city, just as it needs to stop building horse trails in places that aren't even zoned for horses [which happens to be about 90% of the city, probably), such as Los Serranos Ranch, where I lived for seven years and never saw more than a few horses on the trails there.) It's simply false advertising and rings hollow (certainly here in Sleepy Hollow.)

Carbon Canyon's uniqueness is at stake and it's not just because of the 28 (after all, it's only 28) houses, but because of all that's already been built (or, in the case of Pine Valley Estates, has stalled, leaving a blighted scar of "manufactured slopes" on former natural hills) and all that is projected, potentially 350+ houses.

If Carbon Canyon is to be sacrificed to the inevitability of "urban uses," then we all lose. Well, except for the developers and those to whose political campaigns they liberally contribute.

OK, so we know the economy will in no way permit this development to happen any time soon. That is actually not the point in many cases, because, once the project is approved and that tentative tract map issued, the approval is permanent and transferrable and the property's relative value balloons and is, therefore, more marketable. If the city approves this, it will, someday, happen. As will Canyon Hills (76 houses at Canyon Hills Road and Carbon Canyon Road) and there are others proposed, including a 110 or so-unit project just now put into the application pipeline somewhere in the vicinity of Canyon Hills (perhaps south of Carbon Canyon Road where a failed project saw the illegal destruction of a couple thousand native oak trees some years ago?) and the stalled Canyon Crest project (166 homes) on the Brea side.

This is not about NIMBYism; it's about the sustainability of Carbon Canyon.

So, the Chino Hills Planning Commission takes up the Stonecrest project in a public hearing next Tuesday, 21 July at Chino Hills City Hall. Eight citizens (seven opposed and one for the project) submitted comments last October. We'll see if there is any more interest, either way, now.

1 comment:

Corey said...

Hey Paul, I created a blog on Brea Canyon, so far 3 entries, I found it interesting the someone else had created a Brea canyon blog, but used it for everything but Brea Canyon blogging. The link is http://breacanyonblog.blogspot.com/

-Corey