17 August 2009

Aesthetics, Public Policy and the Stonefield Development

Tomorrow night at 7:00 p.m. at the City Hall council chambers, the Chino Hills Planning Commission will conduct part II of its deliberations on the Stonefield housing development of 28 luxury gated homes on about 35 acres of land in Carbon Canyon.

At the last meeting in July, it was uncertain what the next course of action would be for this meeting, depending on what research staff had done to address some questions raised during the discussion, as well as a response generated from a last-minute change in position from CalTrans regarding proposed improvements to the intersection of Carbon Canyon Road and Fairway Drive/Ginseng Lane.

I have gone on at more than enough length about water, traffic and pollution issues in previous posts on this blog and today scrawled out a 20 (count 'em, 20) page document in preparation for tomorrow night's meeting. Nevertheless, I'll probably go off on another wordy bender tonight, too!

So, here goes: Carbon Canyon is a unique landscape within Chino Hills, a city that proudly proclaims its commitment to maintaining its rural heritage. It's right there on the home page of the city's web site.

Yet, here is a project, along with three others (two approved, one in the pre-application stage) that, if all are completed, would bring 312 houses someday to the Chino Hills side of the Canyon (let's not forget that Canyon Crest in Brea proposed 165 additional units, though it has stalled at the city council level there--but, that could be a whopping 477 total, someday.)

Even though it's only 28 units, Stonefield is part and parcel of an unsustainable path that is being taken that will, if fully followed, will utterly despoil the Canyon forever.

And, you can't make any stronger argument about those denigrating effects than with aesthetics. This is simply because any transformation of a beautiful natural resource, like this canyon, is an aesthetic contradiction, especially when the city goes to such great lengths to highlight its sensitivity to preserving its rural heritage.

Yet, staff has the temerity (I know, dust off the old dictionary and look it up, it's a nice perjorative [oops, look that one up, while you're at it]) to suggest that, because 18 acres, or 53% of the site, will remain open space, it is conveniently omitted that this land is basically undevelopable anyway.

Moreover, claims that the aesthetic damage caused by this project can somehow be mitigated by manufactured slopes with non-native vegetation and hardscape such as iron fencing, stone entrance monuments and entrance pavers are just plain egregious (all right, keep the dictionary out, then.)

You cannot simply wholesale trade in a unique natural landscape in Carbon Canyon for something manufactured and artificial, no matter how beautiful it might seem to those lucky 28 homeowners and others who likely believe that undeveloped land is a blighted eyesore.

On top of this, the westward view from the top of the S-curve just to the east of the project, which evidently was given a very high priority in the Chino Hills General Plan process years ago--well, that's largely going to be gone forever, too. Several homes will not only front Carbon Canyon Road, but be above the road grade. Views, which are almost always given extreme premiums in housing developments, are not always to be measured in value by that criteria.

Surprisingly, at last month's meeting, a planning commissioner who was around for those debates during the General Plan's creation, after first seeming to express concern about the potential loss of that view, then turned around and offered that at least some of the view would be available as drivers headed downslope--as if that were somehow justifiable!

Further, the commission's chair stated outright during the session that the property was "entitled," because there was a previously approved tract map, although there are some opponents who've said that this previous map's approval has, in fact, expired.

So, what really needs to be explained, as much as anything, is: what is the status of this "entitlement"?

Is this a done deal?

Who thinks that and why?

If this were so, is the EIR and applicability to CEQA a mere formality?

Is the Statement of Overriding Considerations offered by staff as the mitigation to the unavoidable, significant adverse impacts (pollution and aesthetics) a given?

Can this project legally be denied by either the Planning Commission and, upon appeal (which seems certain), the City Council?

Would neither do this because of entitlement, a preference towards luxury housing over the rural atmosphere of Carbon Canyon (again, not just from Stonefield, but from 174 homes already approved and 110 more in pre-application), and for putting the interests of property owners/developers over the broad-based valid concerns of residents?

Here's the bottom line on aesthetics: this concern over Stonefield is only a microcosm, a small one, about the very future of Carbon Canyon.

No one can plausibly suggest that 202 approved homes on the Chino Hills side of the Canyon is sustainable, good for the Canyon, and beneficial to Canyon and city residents.

No one could justify as good public policy the addition of 600 or more residents, 400 or more cars, the water needed for these projects, and etc.

Sadly, there are several major considerations that keep the playing field far from level.

First, law and legal precedent supports the property owner/developer at the expense of the community, excepting extreme and egregious (that word again) effects that are too obvious to ignore, even though some mitigation has been achieved over the years, thanks to CEQA and some growing public opposition to wholesale, unbridled suburban sprawl.

Two, CEQA has the massive (and convenient) loophole of the Statement of Overriding Considerations, which allows lead agencies (such as Chino Hills) to override negative environmental impacts, without much recourse by opponents, as long as it is in writing and purports to justify such statements by laying out alleged benefits (real or not) to the community.

Finally, no lead agency is legally required to take in general context to its decision, such as thinking about how many other homes are approved within the area, or what outside development means as far as traffic impacts, or where all the trash is supposed to go when our landfills run out, or where the money will come from to fund public services or any number of broader issues.

No, when it comes to this specific project, all that has, at base, to be considered is what is germane to it. Of course, officials should consider context and are encouraged to do so, but only that.

A gander at the benefits identified by staff in its 21 July staff report shows how easy the SOC is to rationalize:

Benefit 1) the City needs "Upper Income category" housing (repeat, needs--though this isn't explicitly stated, it is obviously implied, as if this luxury housing need was somehow germane to the Canyon itself);

Benefit 2) the development is compatible with existing land uses--golf course, mobile homes, and Carriage Hills; all, by the way, approved and built before the City came into being, under different standards, including the exceedingly lax ones held by the County, and all 20 years or older. The lesson here: this project and its contribution to the dismantling of the Canyon is OK, because it's been going on for decades, so why bother asking whether it's sustainable or good public policy to continue to do so?;

Benefit 3) Stonefield is in keeping with the "scenic qualities of Carbon Canyon." How? By that unbuildable open space, by having the development include a "fuel modification zone" for future fire prevention, and by having all of that non-native vegetation and hardscape look pretty, so you'll forget (maybe) that there was a natural canyon setting there once;

Benefit 4) there'll be traffic improvements on Carbon Canyon Road at Fairway Drive/Ginseng Lane. Except . . . CalTrans has thrown a wrench into that and the whole question of what to do with this benefit is in limbo.

That's it--no widespread community benefit and nothing to help or preserve the Canyon (unless you count a fair-share contribution to traffic signals at Canon Lane and Canyon Hills Drive that will only slow down traffic on Carbon Canyon Road for the benefit of far fewer cars entering the highway from these side streets.)

And, to go back to the fundamental issue: how can anyone really claim that these benefits override the irreversible and permanent destruction to the Canyon that will happen if Stonefield gets built?

How can the city boast so proudly of its preservation of its rural atmosphere when it allows the Canyon to gradually be dismantled by housing developments?

Where is the good public policy in all of this?

Well, let's hear from our Planning Commission and, as is almost certain, then from our Council. Again, that meeting is tomorrow night at 7 p.m. in the City Council Chambers.

If it comes to a vote, it will be very interesting to hear what, if any, substantive statements will be made by the commissioners about the public policy implications behind the approval of Stonefield, if that's what takes place.

Because, once you lose a piece of the Canyon, it's gone forever.

To borrow from a former council member of Brea as he argued against Canyon Crest last year: what will residents say about the decision to approve in fifty or a hundred years?

I'll add (of course) to this by asking:

Is that part of the duty or obligation of city officials relative to advancing a developer's interests (via, say, a Statement of Overriding Considerations to an EIR) over those of the broader community? And, will later officials and residents lament the loss of a unique natural resource that is actually the preeminent embodiment of the city's expressed commitment to protect its rural atmosphere?

In closing, let's go back to a comment made by the developer's spokesperson last meeting, as he lambasted as an "abomination" the CalTrans proposal to require significant regrading and retaining walls at the Carbon Canyon Road/Fairway Drive-Ginseng Lane intersection. It would, he argued, ruin the aesthetics of the area to require such extreme physical alterations.

To which can be replied: isn't the Stonefield project doing exactly the same thing, but on a bigger scale? Scraping hillsides, moving 700,000 cubic yards of soil, obliterating an irreplaceable view shed, emitting unhealthy levels of pollution during grading (even if "temporary")--isn't that an extreme physical alteration of a natural, rural setting? Couldn't this be viewed as an "abomination" by applying the same logic? Isn't there just a little bit of irony embodied there?

Let's not forget the context, folks: We have 174 other approved homes. Add the 110 in pre-application AND add the 165 over in Brea should that be approved, and we can take the specific argument about Stonefield to its logical general extreme, because the results certainly would be.) Sadly, to reprise, city officials are not mandated to take in context. They can narrow the focus down to this project, approve it with the others, and leave the consequences to their successors.

Now, there's bad public policy!

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