04 March 2014

Madrona Plan Appeal: A Cynical Take on the Applicant's Rebuttal

Returning just now from Brea, where the city council heard rebuttals from both the appellant and the applicant in the matter of Madrona Plan appeal for a proposed Carbon Canyon residential project, it was apt, perhaps, that, while heading downhill eastbound from Olinda Village on Carbon Canyon Road, this blogger was passed by a large white F-series Ford pickup.  The crime?  Driving only eight miles over the speed limit, at 11:30 at night, on a canyon road, near housing.

Apt, perhaps, because tonight's rebuttal by the applicant in the Madrona hearing made a point, repeated throughout of selectively offering commentary that might have addressed an argument advanced by the appellant, superficially did so, completely misrepresented such, or, often as not, failed to so rebut.

At least it was consistent with the applicant's opening statement, which similarly lacked substance, heft, weight and other synonyms for having a "there there."

Among the highlights:  applicant John Erskine showing a photograph of the project entrance north of Carbon Canyon Road, east of the La Vida Mineral Springs site, and then opining (as opposed to rebutting) that the spot didn't look "beautiful."  So much for the "eye of the beholder."  Alas, when an imaginative rendering of the project entrance with its wide stone bridge, Mediterranean-style guard house and profusion of trees and plant material (and, where was the fire management?) appeared, well, then, man-made beauty in all its glory manifested itself in full flower.

Another beauty was the traffic engineer, who contributed another mind-numbing presentation thick with industry terminology and references which, to his credit, did seek to rebut statements made by a traffic engineer hired by the appellant.  He was also not nearly as long, and, therefore, as ponderous as his last appearance.  Then, again, he spoke later.  Tellingly, Erskine rose from his seat and gently made his way closer to said engineer--an obvious indication that said engineer needed to wrap it up because it was clear the discussion was not what was needed or desired.

What said engineer did not repeat was his memorable statement from January, when he observed that the 19 car trips over the threshold of a significant unavoidable adverse impact under the California Environmental Quality Act, which then required a statement of overriding consideration as mitigation for an approved project, was not really that many trips.  As if 19 more than lousy ain't still lousy.

Also notable in tonight's presentation was another applicant attorney who made the point that statements about current average water use in Brea were low by about 30-40% and that "conservative" estimates from the Environmental Impact Report that Madrona's homes would use up to 6 times the average were actually overstated by about one-third.  Fine, except that her revised "conservative" figures still came out to this.  The average water use of Brea homes is something like 16-20 units and the average use at Madrona would be 38.6.

Well, that looks like double--and is that really a rebuttal that makes Madrona look better?  The kicker is that attorney Erskine produced a screen shot of a New York Times article (which he then attempted to qualify by stating that, being the New York Times, it couldn't be accused of being conservative, which begged the question--who exactly was accusing?) that contained a single statement by a single scientist at Columbia University that climate change might actually lead to California being wetter or drier over time.  What the article didn't say was--what part of California and where would the water be coming from?

The applicant claims that water use and supply is not a major issue and this article purported to be evidentiary of that, but most of Brea's water comes from a local consortium and another major source is the Metropolitan Water District, which draws much of its water from the Colorado River, which, in turn, draws its sources not from California but from points east.  The other major source:  the State Water Project, which announced this year for the first time in its 54 year history that it could not guarantee delivery of water short term to its customers. 

Another high point came when a civil engineer, who admitted he was not prepared to speak, came to the podium and, well, sounded like he was not ready to speak.  He did opine that the project was well considered from the geotechnical side, but did not actually have much in the way of rebuttal, to which the evening was devoted.

Meantime, the economic analyst, from a Los Angeles firm, spent his time talking about how Brea's retail sales situation was so much superior to neighboring cities, but then failed to connect that to Madrona specifically, even admitting that his numbers were regional in nature.  Meaning, essentially, that the Brea Mall draws revenue from a regional perspective, but there was actually very little said about just how Madrona residents would spend their money, because how can you?

Besides all the figures purporting to show excess of revenues over expenses don't account for what will happen with the next major fire, which the fire consultants (who did not speak tonight) openly acknowledged, as they had to, will be coming, and what the costs to the city will be for that.

To end matters perfectly, "community relations" consultant John Koos, a planning commissioner who voted in 2008 for the Canyon Crest iteration that is now being appealed and which was the precursor to Madrona, finished the "rebuttal" with a short statement that was simply this:  Brea needs Madrona because people who need (want?) luxury executive homes are being forced to buy in Yorba Linda, La Habra Heights, and nicer areas of Fullerton.  Koos cited the examples of his lawyer and doctor (or some such) and other people of the "class" Brea needs, he submitted, to rise to the upper echelons of Orange County's elite enclaves, typically found down south.

Yes, Breans, you are being told by one of your former city officials that your city just isn't good enough when it comes the housing stock and, by logical extension, the human stock found in your poor, benighted city.  Madrona is necessary, Koos concluded, because we need biotech, tech industry, medical and other business executives to rescue and uplift the city from its riff-raff plebeian associations.

Just like the business person, obviously recruited by Koos, who spoke in January and stated, in public mind you, that he was forced to build his custom home in Yorba Linda because there was nothing of like quality in Brea.  As if he was required to build a large custom house (with its attendant higher usages of water, gas, electricity and so on.)  Except that Madrona would only be "semi-custom," so what would said business person do in that case?

The evening concluded with a fanciful bit of 3-D imaging that attempted to show what the applicants are trying to convince everyone Madrona will look like.  Major impressions here:  the sheer amount of landscape along Carbon Canyon Road and the entrance, as well as around the houses.  Yet, fire management would seem to dictate toning that down just a tad.  Plus, no real indication of what the single entrance would look like relative to ingress and egress from Carbon Canyon Road, which winds in tight curves through the area.  Also, one swimming pool among 162 luxury executive houses.  And, to this viewer anyway, a flattening of the landscape and a clever attempt to make it seem that nearby Olinda Village and Madrona were more or less of similar elevations and landscapes, which is largely not true.  Madrona sits mainly atop ridgelines, whereas most of Olinda Village is below that.

Now, it is late, so this is a bit of a stream-of-consciousness, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, glib and irreverent, as well as subjective, summary, to be sure.  Moreover, there is no implication here that all development in Carbon Canyon is bad (smaller projects and single ones seem reasonable for the amount of development the canyon has absorbed in recent decades) or that Madrona is the only project of concern--in fact, there are already two approved projects of over 100 units on the Chino Hills side and a pending application for over 100 more, in addition to Madrona.  In any case, there will be no shortage of larger (if not, luxury executive homes to meet Mr. Koos' high and stringent standards) homes for prospective buyers to peruse in the future.

The problem is that conditions have changed, the fire risk is serious, the water situation is tenuous, the traffic on Carbon Canyon Road is often very poor--the canyon can only absorb so many more homes.

Again, Old Standard Life Insurance Company, despite putting up the necessary appearances, and its development partner are not going to build a single house.  They simply seek an entitled tract map to increase the value of the land for sale to increase revenues to pay off creditors of a company that drove itself into the ground. 

The City of Brea has no legal obligation to approve this project, though Erskine was quite clear in setting the table for litigation should a denial of Madrona be forthcoming from the city council.  Even staff recommendations for approval, constantly put forward by the applicant, is not a mandate for the council.  It can choose to uphold the appeal and, hopefully, city attorney Jim Markman will make that point when the council comes to a vote.

This blogger arrived at the break, having missed what was said to have been a well-coordinated and finely-executed rebuttal by the appellants, but what the applicants offered just seemed lacking in substance almost all the way around.  In fact, compared to the others, the traffic engineer seemed to be the most on-task.  Which highlighted the problem with the presentation as a whole.  Like its project, there just isn't much substantive to it. 

As has been said before, if Madrona and Canyon Crest were such great projects, something would have built on the site by now. 

No comments: