19 October 2014

Another Ramble in the Hills Above Carbon Canyon

Rock Canyon looking southeast towards Soquel Canyon and, at the top of the hills in the distance, Chino Hills State Park.  This area could be totally altered by the Hidden Oaks development for water runoff from the proposed 107-unit housing tract now in application with the City of Chino Hills.
This afternoon, another short hike was taken with a longtime resident who has a strong interest in preserving trail access in Carbon Canyon because of the remarkable physical, natural, and scenic features of this remarkable place.

Notably, while there is an established trail system in Chino Hills, including some fine ones off of Grand Avenue, Chino Hills Parkway and other locations where the views are excellent, there are no public trails of any significance in Carbon Canyon, which offers unparalleled experiences not found elsewhere in the city.

A crater from the removal nearly two decades ago of a massive old oak tree bulldozed for an aborted precursor to Hidden Oaks--many of these dot the destroyed landscape when some 2,000 trees were levelled by a developer who then abandoned the project, leaving the disturbed property behind.
Today's jaunt was above Sleepy Hollow and then slightly east to the area now slated for development as "Hidden Oaks," which is being processed as a 107-unit gated community high on the ridgetops between Carbon and Soquel canyons.  Though it has been said here before that the project is entitled and, consequently, virtually assured of approval by the city, that was evidently in error.

There still has to be, once a plan is submitted to and reviewed by the City of Chino Hills, a new Environmental Impact Report (EIR), which will raise the matter of significant adverse impacts to the environment that could affect the approval of the project.  EXCEPT, that the City could (and, in fact, almost certainly would) impose Statements of Overriding Consideration (SOCs) that would provide grounds for approval based on perceived benefits to the city (though not necesarily the canyon) from the project that would override those impacts revealed in the EIR.

What appears to be a soil-testing area for the Hidden Oaks project.  This fairly flat ridgetop area would contain the 107 houses in view of Chino Hills State Park, on the hilltops in the distance and, as a windswept area with steep canyons to its south, would be susceptible to significant fire risk.
For example, the recently-approved Madrona project of 162 houses on the Brea side of the Canyon just over the county line from Sleepy Hollow was issued an unprecedented three SOCs by the city council (which, by the way, established a new precedent that the city will have to contend with in future developments.)

Moreover, the impacts that will be brought to bear by the Madrona, Canyon Hills, and Stonefield projects, totaling 262 units, will not be considered under the Hidden Oaks project when the EIR is done, because those projects are not completed.

These flags are other indicators of ongoing testing at the project site.
This last point is significant, because the EIR will measure traffic levels, for example, but only those based on measurements of traffic taken at the time.  Yet, there will be 262 houses coming at some point in the future, involving something on the order of 2,600 daily car trips and these won't be part of the EIR because the homes aren't built yet.  Naturally, this applies to other considerations (destruction of oak and walnut woodland habitat, being a key one.)

Another area of concern for Hidden Oaks is not just trails and the massive amount of cut-and-fill involving huge tonnage of dirt hauled out and brought in for fill, but also the matter of where water runoff from streets and other elements of the development is being directed.  The land in question is some 500 acres from Carbon Canyon Road all the way south into Soquel Canyon, so the plan evidently is to dump the runoff into Soquel Creek.

Somewhat obscured by felled trees, tangled vines, walnut trees and other plant material, the impressive upper fall of Rock Canyon has a rock face of some 40 feet in height that, in wet years, provides a spectacular waterfall experience.  This winter might provide above "average" rainfall, so this could be a beautiful site in coming months.
Moreover, the route could well go through one of the prettiest spots in all of the Carbon/Soquel canyons area, a stunning little place called "Rock Canyon," by a long-time rancher, Bill Friend, who recently passed away and whose cattle have grazed in these canyons via leases for many years.

Today's walk took in the sylvan scenes of Rock Canyon, even with the extreme dryness of our long-term drought, and despite the brutal clearing of the Hidden Oaks property when it was approved for development nearly twenty years ago and some 2,000 trees, including majestic oaks, were bulldozed before the developer went bankrupt and the project died (that's another sore subject--letting someone destroy on that scale without reasonable assurances, like a bond, that they could actually carry out the project!)

The creek in Rock Canyon descends steeply and narrowly as it moves southeast towards Soquel Canyon.  The cattle trail at right winds through and along its banks.
Rock Canyon descends from the ridgetops in a steep southeasterly direction with three distinct waterfall areas.  The tallest, having a rock face of some forty feet in heights, is spectacular, when there is water, that is.  At the moment, being bone dry and somewhat covered in vines, trees and shrubs and fallen dead plant material, its majesty is somewhat shrouded, but still evident.  Further down are two smaller falls that, while not as remarkable as the uppermost, are still pretty spots with large boulders that provide a nice splashing and crashing during good rainy years.  Even in this drought, there is still weeping and seepage of water at these several falls and plant material is using this water to maintain what growth they can.

The canyon terminates by joining Soquel Creek, which runs along the northern edge of Soquel Canyon and even that watercourse, which usually has at least some flow most years, is totally dry, at least at the confluence with Rock Canyon.  As noted above, the project's acreage includes a portion of Soquel Canyon and even climbs a bit of the southfacing hill, the other side of which is Chino Hills State Park.

The creek at Rock Canyon as it terminates at Soquel Creek in Soquel Canyon.
In fact, that is another lamentable aspect of Hidden Oaks.  Not only would it destroy some of the most picturesque landscape in Carbon Canyon, among many other impacts, but its position on the ridgetop between Carbon and Soquel canyons would make it highly visible from the state park, totally defeating the purpose of having a protected wildland area that would allow hikers, bikers and equestrians to get some respite from urban encroachment.

There is another consideration:  overgrazing by cattle, especially in the midst of this terrible drought, is dessicating the landscape, here and throughout Carbon Canyon.  This was noticed in the last significant rain when eroded soil poured onto Carbon Canyon Road just west of Chino Hills Parkway for the steep, denuded slopes below the "maternity hotel" perched on the ridgetop.  That didn't just happen and the problem will be found elsewhere in which cattle continue to graze where the plant material has diminished.

Soquel Creek, which usually has some water in it but is, of course, dry during this debilitating drought, as it moves westward from the confluence with Rock Canyon creek.
Hidden Oaks, like Madrona and other developments, is part of the relentless march of suburbia that continues to swallow up Carbon Canyon and diminishes, defaces, demeans and destroys more of our oak and wildland woodland habitat. At some point, the very reasons most people move to a place like Carbon Canyon are being compromised, often fatally, reducing it to something unrecognizable and far less appealing.

Then, there is the worsening traffic, increased fire risk, excessive use of water and everything else that makes tract developments like this anachronisms, relics of a time now gone when it was thought that massive building could go on seemingly indefinitely.  Yet, instead of adjusting to changing realities in our environment, the same framework continues to be applied.  That framework is faulty and failing, but so long as the developers make money and governments serve as willing accomplices, then it will still hold sway, leaving the reckoning to those who come along later.

Another pretty spot along Rock Creek even in the driest of situations.
For the time being, there probably won't be any building at Hidden Oaks for at least a few years yet.  It is also possible the owners will look for that tentative tract map to be approved, thereby raising the value of the land and giving return on their investment, and then sell the property.  Obviously, economic uncertainty continues, as well, so it may be that another downturn is somewhere in the near future and delays could ensue.  The same would likely happen if another catastrophic fire like the Freeway Complex blaze of November 2008 takes place--and it will, some day.

Those who enjoy walks like those taken today have time, but it's fleeting.  The fellow hiker on today's trip has enjoyed this walk for some forty years and the prospect of losing access to Rock Canyon is a tough one to contemplate.  Practical considerations are leading him to push to public access through a trail through Rock Canyon while also working to move the runoff to another location and in another way.  Hopefully, at the very least, these worthy goals can be realized.

A view from the Hidden Oaks site northeastward towards Carbon Canyon and, in the distance, the San Gabriel Mountains.  Views like this lure developers, home buyers, and preservationists as competitors vie for their vested interests.
In the big picture, though, the questions become more pressing:

How many more houses can be built in Carbon Canyon before it is no longer what attracts most who live there?

How much worse can the traffic get (and it is getting worse, as anyone who drives Carbon Canyon Road during commuter hours can attest, despite the traffic studies paid for by developers that suggest otherwise)?

How much more water will be taken that we increasingly can't afford to provide for these projects?

How much more of a fire risk will there be on these wind-swept ridgetops with steep canyons ideal for driving fire upslope?

How much longer will local governments continue to operate in an outdated fashion when it comes to large housing tracts in the urban/wildland interface?

Are these questions continuing to be rhetorical?


Concerned for the canyon said...

prs, I read your article and it's a shame that any entity would want to destroy all this beauty, and in the process also create all kinds of significant hazards, just for financial gain.
If you know of any organized effort that would work on opposing and eventually defeating the Hidden Oaks project, then I would like to be a part of that (or even head such effort). Let me know if this is something you or others that you know might want to get involved in. Thanks.

prs said...

Hello Concerned for the canyon, thanks for the comment and continued interest in the blog. There doesn't appear to be any organized group fighting this project, but it also hasn't gotten to the point where public meetings and comment have come up yet. There may well be interest in such a group and you can certainly get back in touch about your interest in leading or helping with an effort. Perhaps there can be a community meeting held to lay the groundwork for a campaign. Thanks again!

concerned for the canyon said...

prs, thanks for your response. I will definitely keep checking your blog and city info to see when the right time is for a community effort. It would be great if we can stop this.