27 October 2009

Stonefield Project Approved by Chino Hills City Council

It was, perhaps, inevitable. At least, that's what seems to be the case with the Stonefield housing development's approval tonight by the Chino Hills City Council.

A host of reasons can be offered as to why: property owners have the right to develop their land; the project is high-end and from a developer with well-regarded projects in Newport Beach, Coto de Caza, and other south Orange County upscale cities; it's only twenty-eight houses; and so on.

Still, how can anyone look at the prospect of 202 approved residences (not to mention the 110 now evidently in the pre-application stage) in the Chino Hills side of Carbon Canyon and conclude that the overall quality of life there will be improved? That is, how will 98 units in Pine Valley Estates, 76 to be built in Canyon Hills, and now the 28 at Stonefield make the commute through the Canyon easier? As water (and other issues of infrastructure like electricity and landfills, to name two) continues to be a concern, how will these homes--all executive and luxury residences of larger square footage and bigger lots--make conservation easier? Just as importantly, how much less of the Canyon will we actually see to know that it will no longer be its own uniquely situated buffer and instead be swallowed up by the sprawl on both sides? How do "manufactured slopes" seriously be considered "open space"? The list of rhetorical questions along these lines could go on.

For the Council, the issue never was about whether the project had merit. Members were clearly enamored with the prospect of big, beautiful luxury homes to pad the portfolio of the city's housing stock. The only concern was that city staff recommended that Stonefield pay the entire $1.5 million bill for traffic improvements (adding acceleration/deacceleration lanes to Carbon Canyon Road at Fairway Drive) while the developer, noting that only 1.5% more traffic would be added to SR-142, insisted that it only pay that proportion, or $15,000. So, the developer will have to decide to either pony up or file suit.

In the meantime, in my remarks to the Council, I asked a fundamental question: can a project be approved there that doesn't require a "Statement of Overriding Considerations" to supercede unmitigatable impacts? Notably, there seemed to be no acknowledgement that anything other than these sized homes on those sized lots is possible.

In other words, to reduce aesthetic impacts (including several homes that would actually be situated higher than the highway) and cut pollution emissions down below already-low AQMD thresholds, could fewer than 28 residences of lesser size on smaller lots be built there and still make the developer a reasonable profit? After all, the rights of Stonefield to develop their property are not rights of house square footage, lot size, number of units, or level of profit. None of those things engender an obligation upon the city, which gets to the heart of why the "Statement of Overriding Considerations" is considered such a necessity.

Why isn't there a project possible on that site that meets CEQA critieria, city development plans, community concerns, and the developer's bottom line? Stonefield bought that property in 2006, at just about the peak of an overheated and overvalued real estate market, but why is that a concern of the city or the local community?

The plain reality is: the city could have required the developer to come back with a project that generated less construction-related emissions of particulate matter, lowered the profile to keep canyon viewsheds, and, as a result, build fewer homes of smaller square footage and lot size. The "Statement of Overriding Considerations" is never an imperative placed upon a city. Local governments have discretion as defined by CEQA. Unfortunately, the Chino Hills City Council chose not to take full advantage of its discretionary powers.

One other interesting tidbit: when the developer and the council were jousting over traffic mitigation costs, the former's attorney actually suggested that, because most of the traffic came into Carbon Canyon from outside, therefore the future residents of Stonefield were, rather than perpetrators of increased congestion, instead its victims.

Now there's a selling point for the developer to angle before prospective buyers:

"Buy at Stonefield Chino Hills and be a victim of Carbon Canyon's traffic congestion"!

Actually, the real lesson in all of this is that most everyone seems to understand that this pace of development in our region is completely unsustainable in the long term. But, because of our laws, legal precedent, and patterns of land use and development, we'll keep on going anyway, because the problem is always attributable to someone or something else.

And, to go back to my first statement in this entry, that this continued development in the face of and in spite of this unsustainability, just seems inevitable.

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