19 December 2013

Madrona Project Community Out(Over)reach

John Koos, who just happened to be one of the slim majority in the 3-2 City of Brea Planning Commission vote in 2008 to approve the Canyon Crest, now Madrona, housing project of 162 "executive" units on 367 acres on the Brea side of Carbon Canyon AND who just happened to land a job as the public relations guru for Madrona shortly after resigning from the commission this past summer, represented his bosses at a meeting of the homeowners' association for Olinda Village, the community in closest proximity and affect from the proposed development.

Notably, according to some of those present, Koos sought to limit final group participation by trying to break down (physically and otherwise) the attendees into smaller "breakout" factions.  Finding that this idea did not somehow resonate particularly well with the residents, Koos abandoned this plan.

In any case, the pitch was as expected, as was, for that matter, the response for Olinda Village residents, who might (and have been) easily labeled as NIMBYs for their decade and a half long opposition to Madrona and its Canyon Crest predecessor.  The problem is that this isn't just about not wanting something in Olinda Village's backyard. 

This is about a whole set of reasons why this project is a poor one--from wildfires scorching the site five times in the last several decades to a grade of "F" for Carbon Canyon Road during significant hours of commuting times in the morning and afternoon to the loss of rapidly-diminishing oak woodland habitat to the fact that the City of Brea would have to issue an unprecedented three "statements of overriding consideration" in answer to significant and unavoidable environmental impacts under California Environmental Quality Act criteria that cannot be mitigated.

"Information" presented by Koos at the Olinda Villa meeting included a number of creative interpretations of data.  Fpor example, it argued that, because Brea had an "allotment" of 785 "above moderate" income housing sites from a Southern California Association of Governments Regional Housing Needs Assessment, the 165 Madrona units would help meet the allotment and that "executive housing is needed in Brea."

What the "information" fails to acknowledge, however, as can be seen in this link to Brea's draft 2014-2021 housing element document (click here) is that the allotment has to do with zoning, not actual construction--which is why Chino Hills and Diamond Bar, for example, have "parked" affordable housing units via zoning changes in Tonner Canyon, which is not the same as having concrete plans for building these units.  These actions merely satisfy the demands of the allotment.

Besides, there are other areas now in which executive housing is being built and in the case of Blackstone, the project has nowhere the same issues as with Madrona, being a better location in terms of potential issues and problems (if not, absent of problems, as a wildfire in the hills above Blackstone will someday show.)

Moreover, the so-called "need" for executive housing was also based on the defunct older Brea General Plan, not the currently-operating one.  Conveniently for Madrona's backers, however, is that this project has been grandfathered in under the old Carbon Canyon specific plan, which makes no sense given that conditions in the city and elsewhere have changed dramatically since the old plan was abandoned and the current iteration adopted in 2004.

While backers argue that the revised Madrona plan is superior to the Planning Commission-approved Canyon Crest because of changes in grading impacts on slide-sensitive slopes and volume and fewer losses to oaks and walnuts, the reality is that these changes mean more homes on a smaller footprint and the overall impacts are still, as demonstrated by the city's need to issue the unprecedented three "SOCs," far too much.

While Madrona's promoters argue their project will be more "fire safe" than the houses destroyed in the Freeway Complex Fire in Yorba Linda and Anaheim Hills, comparisons to those areas are not as cut and dried as they would like everyone to believe.  Firstly, the site has burned four times in 30 years and the project would actually introduce more fuels and that fire history demonstrates that future blazes will take place where previous ones have occurred.  Moreover, vulnerability is most acute in sites at the top of ridgelines, as Madrona would be, because flames race rapidly uphill.  Finally, there is only one two-lane highway out of the canyon and the more homes that are built within the canyon, the more difficult it will be for residents to get out and firefighting personnel to get in.  This risk is just too great for the City of Brea to assume.

Madrona's backers explain away the immense loss of oak and walnut woodland habitat by offering that there will be a revegetation and habitat restoration plan that will have a so-called "success criterion" of five years.  How often have we seen plantings at new developments or along freeways and highways, in which a significant number, if not the majority, of plant materials die well before the five year threshold?

The claim is also made that there will be "impact fees" of over $14 million to the City of Brea from Madrona, except that almost of all this revenue will be manifested by the development's needs, not those for the city as a whole.  And, again, there will be impacts that cannot be so easily quantified, such as the fire risk, the increased traffic, and the loss of decreasing natural habitats.  And, frankly, one should also be skeptical of dollar amounts tossed out by developers.

Finally, the "information" included the claim that, by 2017 and then 2035, the so-called "horizon years" for traffic impacts, the intersection of Carbon Canyon Road at Olinda Drive, where the main entrance to Olinda Village is situated, would actually see a grade of "B" in the morning and "C" in the evening during peak commuting hours.  Inevitably, future projections (see the comment in the preceding paragraph about skepticism on dollars) of traffic are almost always low and often comically low. 

It bears remembering on this point and others, that two developments in Chino Hills, totaling 100 units, are already approved with the larger of 76 units just a mile or so east of Madrona ready to break ground at any time.  And, a new application of up to 200 units is looming just across Carbon Canyon Road from the 76-unit Canyon Hills project.

It's easy to accuse opponents of NIMBYism and, if those against Madrona were complaining about their loss of a view, that would be grounds for such a characterization.  But, Carbon Canyon has had continuing development since the 1960s and it has hit the wall.  Any further large-scale projects make a worsening situation that much worse.  The infrastructure concerning Carbon Canyon Road cannot be changed.  Fire risks are too obvious, given our better understanding of the Canyon's fire history.  Future uncertainties of regional water supplies given climate change should be more in the thinking of our local and regional planners when it comes to housing.  The list goes on.

As the City of Brea gears up for its final hearing of the appeal of the 2008 Planning Commission vote, of which Mr. Koos, now an advocate for a developer, was a crucial part, it is important to understand the broader implications. 

Truthfully, the bankrupt owner, Old Standard Life Insurance Company, which drove itself into the ground and is now under receivership, will not be building houses at Madrona.  It wants an approved tract map and an entitled property that will maximize value and return something to creditors who will not get dollar for dollar in the OSL debacle, which was covered here extensively in early 2009. 

But, if Brea denies the appeal and confirms the decision to approve the project, it sets a precedent that opens the door for more controversial projects in hillside areas that constitute the "last frontier" of major available land for development.

Ironically, Brea has protested vigorously the plans to develop the Shell-Aera property in unincorporated Los Angeles County near Rowland Heights and Diamond Bar and the City of Industry's vast holdings in Tonner Canyon, on the grounds that the impacts on Brea would be damaging.

And, yet, here is the city, poised to approve a project that isn't that far removed from Shell-Aera and Tonner Canyon, except that it would be fine, presumably, to have a bad project the city approves rather than ones some other agency or agencies allows.

Our region is truly overbuilt when accounting for all of the dynamics involved in the rampant development southern California has seen, especially since World War II.  Economic downturns can delay, but the relentless expansion of our region is pushing us to the brink in terms of the overall impacts, whether they be traffic, water, trash and waste management, pollution, schools, climate change and a host of other factors.  This is not just a Carbon Canyon issue or a Brea issue or a NIMBY issue, it is one of essential limits. 

Unfortunately, ideology or short-term thinking or uneasy connections between appointed and elected officials and housing developers (just within the last couple of weeks, a Chino Hills planner left for a job with a major developer) or other issues can lead to bad public policy decisions--Madrona could well wind up being a negative benchmark for Brea along these lines.  Let's hope not.


CanyonNative said...

Every person who reads this blog must speak out against Madrona. Everything Paul says is true and this project will negatively affect a wide area, not just the Canyon.

While Madrona must ATTEMPT a minimal mitigation of 51 acres for lost oak and walnut woodlands, NO acreage on the property has been identified as suitable for restoration. The applicant uses self-serving jargon such as "search for possible sites" and "on-site replanting is preferred". In ordinary English that means the developers know there will never be woodlands restored on that site, and maybe nowhere at all.

Lex Valentine said...

With the traffic as bad as it is now, it's insane for the city to think it's okay to add more housing out here.

CanyonNative said...

Madrona's EIR cumulative effects chart shows the Hidden Oaks application to be 107 houses. Could it be as many as 200? That would impact their estimates for traffic.