04 February 2014

Recap of Tonight's Madrona Public Hearing

Tonight was the second evening of hearings in the appeal of the Madrona housing development, proposing 162 houses in the Brea portion of Carbon Canyon between Olinda Village and the Chino Hills border and which was approved by the city's planning commission on a narrow 3-2 vote of the predecessor Canyon Crest in 2008 before the outbreak of the Freeway Complex Fire.

The proceedings were devoted entirely to public comment, with twenty-six persons speaking for up to five minutes over the course of about 2 1/2 hours or so.  Of those who offered remarks, twenty were against the Madrona project and six were in favor. 

Notably, five of these included business members, who must have been there at the behest of former Brea planning commissioner (he was one of those three "yea" votes in '08) and current P.R. consultant for Madrona John Koos and a representative of the Building Industry Association.  The sixth was a resident of Olinda Village who was on a personal quest to belittle Hills for Everyone's Executive Director Claire Schlotterbeck rather than offer much of substance about Madrona's purported merits.

In fact, the others focused on almost purely business issues, such as generated revenue, though a couple had curious commentaries.  One man, for example, who works for an aerospace firm in Brea, indicated that he couldn't find a house in town that worked for his wants, so he was building his custom home in Yorba Linda.  Another offered the view that the "C-class" executives (that is, CFOs, CEOs, etc.) among Brea's businesses would "demand" a Madrona project for the type of clientele that would patronize their firms.

The upshot of these notably narrowed remarks is that someone who could afford "luxury" housing could only be expected to consider such living arrangements and could not deign to look at, say, the executive housing available at Blackstone, some of which are probably not that far under $1 million.  And, that those "C-class" execs are more concerned about the upper-class clientele from a Madrona-type development rather than the yokels, riff-raff and plebeians who only fit the demographic of the $150,000 a year household income living in $600-700,000 houses.

As for the jeremiad against "Hills for Us and No One Else" and Schlotterbeck, it came across like a petty, petulant and, frankly, bizarre rant.  Probably did no favors for the pro-Madrona crowd.

For the most part, those speaking against the project were highly articulate, focused and offered solid reasons for being firmly rooted in opposition.  A number stood out for not only being excellent public speakers, but also going out of their way to praise city leaders for their overall management and direction of what is truly a well-run city, much as Chino Hills is.

One of those who shone brightly resides on the Chino Hills side of Carbon Canyon but was very complimentary of Brea and its many amenities.   Another who is a fairly recent denizen of Olinda Village was effusive in his praise and his belief that the council would make the right decision and was, in this blogger's opinion, the most effective of the twenty-six commenters.

Former council member John Beauman was also excellent at pointing out the differences between constitutional private property protections and the lack of application of these to an out-of-state bankrupt insurance company under receivership.   He made a fine point of noting that "anticipated value" was not a right or expectation that city should have to promote.

Another telling presentation was by a representative of the "Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks" in Orange County, who handed out a chart of fourteen points under the county's sub-regional Sustainable Communities Strategy Policy and how Madrona didn't meet a single one.  His remarks were cogent, well-considered and very timely.

An Olinda Village resident gave a penetrating example of how, some years back, he was part of an investor group in a proposed hillside project in Encino that failed to be approved, while pointing out that the Encino gambit had far more going for it, actually, than Madrona.

An insurance company loss control manager from Silverado Canyon in eastern Orange County didn't come across as well as he could have, but did have a good, pointed question for the council:  namely, could the city reasonably argue to have met a standard of care in its stewardship of the Madrona site relating to future claims in case of a disaster, like a wildfire?

In all, it was a good representation of varying views that pointed out the lack of merit for the project, despite all the grandiose claims by the applicants of revenue streams, fire protection, meeting the "need" for luxury housing and so on.

A month from tonight, then, comes the next phase, in which the applicant first and then the appellant are given time for rebuttals.  It will be interesting, given the results of the 21 January opening hearing, to see what each side has to offer and what effects this might have on a council vote.  It would seem likely, in any case, that the council will take additional time to consider the matter, probably asking for further staff input.

Public comment is now closed, but that is no reason for those concerned about this project to avoid going to future stages of this hearing.  A presence still has some weight, so it would be well for anyone concerned about Madrona's fate to attend the meeting on Tuesday, 4 March at 7:00 p.m. at Brea's city hall council chambers, corner of Birch and Randolph.

Meantime, here is the text of one set of comments, not stated exactly as below but pretty close, offered this evening:

Two weeks ago, we heard from the appellant and applicant teams.  The takeaways for me from each are:  for the appellants, that this project emasculates increasingly diminished oak and walnut woodland habitat;  that it is in a dangerous wildfire area that has burned several times in recent decades and it is too risky to build there; that it uses far too much water, especially as we are mired in drought; and that traffic in Carbon Canyon Road is already too heavy and this project would make it worse.
What the applicants basically said is, this project isn’t CEQA-applicable (I hope we all heard that), but that they welcome it anyway; that this project is in a wildfire zone that will burn again, but that firewalls, sprinklers and other elements will make the homes “survivable”, and that traffic on Carbon Canyon Road has gone down, but that it will go up with this project, and that 19 car trips over the CEQA threshold is, essentially, no big deal.
Note, however, that the applicants said not one word about the massive use of water.
Let’s also remember that the applicant is not capable of developing any housing project anywhere at any time—that Madrona is, fundamentally, a figment of a collective imagination.
Let’s remind ourselves that the property owner is a bankrupt insurance company that put itself there by its own poor decisions and is now under receivership via the State of Idaho.
Let’s be clear that the applicant has only one goal:  entitlement, so that it can sell the land at a higher value and do something for the creditors of Old Standard Life Insurance Company.
That’s it:  these folks, no offense to them, are not here to help Brea and its citizens.  I don’t blame them, that’s not their job. 
Your job, however, is to put the citizens of Brea first.  Not in line behind a bankrupt property owner that cannot possibly deliver on any of its rosy promises.
Now, after the applicants’ arguments, I was envisioning a Madrona sales booklet, not that one will ever be produced, at least not by the applicant.
But, I was imagining what it would say and what it ought to say.  In other words, I was mindful of full disclosure.
Because, full disclosure would require a front cover photograph of the CalTrans signs, put up just a few days before the last meeting, at both ends of the Brea portion of Carbon Canyon—signs that read, “Entering Hazardous Fire Area.”
Full disclosure would involve letting potential buyers know that the destruction of native oak and walnut trees would not simply be remedied by planting new trees and creating so-called “open space” because most new plantings die anyway—plus the inevitable fire would burn off most of the new materials.
Speaking of which, full disclosure would also include what the applicant’s fire consultants said, quite clearly:  “The next big fire is coming.”  Then, after showing what the fire walls and sprinkler systems and other elements would look like, there would be the reassuring catchphrase:  “But, it’s OK, your house would survive” next to a photo of the dessicated landscape after the Freeway Complex Fire of 2008.  And, who would pay the estimated $1.2 million and up for houses that are going to “survive” a wildfire that devastates all the land around the development.  And, what a view that would be!
Full disclosure would then involve showing graphics of how much water this project would use relative to the situation that exists in our state and, in fact, in almost the entire American West—including Idaho, where more than half of the state is in a drought condition.  In California it is nearly two-thirds.
Let’s remind ourselves, in fact, that snowpack is 18% of normal; that reservoirs throughout the state are at critically low levels; that dozens of towns in California have water supplies for only upcoming weeks; that Governor Brown has declared a drought emergency, and, if matters don’t change and fast, we will almost certainly be rationing water next year and probably beyond; that the State Water Project for the first time in 54 years cannot guarantee delivery to customers; and that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has declared portions of 11 western states, including California, as disaster areas due to drought.
Let’s also recollect that, with almost no rainfall for three straight years and water shortages and a year-round wildfire season and with a location that has the optimal conditions of windy ridgetops and steep canyons that speed fire—that Madrona is exactly the type of site this video, put out by the U.S. Geological Survey and called “Living with Fire.”
Let’s remember that Carbon Canyon Road is the only way in and out during a fire emergency and that, otherwise, it is over the CEQA threshold—by the way, 19 units over “terrible” is still “terrible” and that it is a road that experiences regular, unmitigated dangerous driving and accidents.
Finally, let’s remember that, if you approve Madrona, the applicants go home and will speculate, yes speculate, on this land.  Is this the kind of private property right we should empathize with and be supportive of?
If anything gets built there, and it won’t be Madrona as we know it, and a disaster happens, they won’t be liable.  The City of Brea will.
THAT is full disclosure.
Knowing all of this, do the right thing by your citizens, the people you’ve sworn to represent. 
After all, if there was a viable project at this site, it isn’t this one and it isn’t by this applicant, who can’t deliver on what they promise.
Please vote yes on the appeal and no on Madrona.

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