16 September 2015

A Ramble Among (Not So) Hidden Oaks

Looking northeast from the Hidden Oaks site towards Oak Tree Downs and the San Gabriel Mountains. Click on any photo to see the set in enlarged views in new windows.
This morning, just after some badly-needed rain, and before the heat returns, this blogger took a hike with a fellow Sleepy Hollow resident in the hills between Carbon and Soquel canyons where the strangely-named Hidden Oaks development is to be built.

Sleepy Hollow from the Hidden Oaks parcel.  A section of the hilltops scraped clean by the Canyon Hills development now in process is at the far right along the unprotected ridgeline of the hills above the community.
This site has already been mangled twice by previous developers--one who tore out oak trees, put them in containers, and left them to die along Carbon Canyon Road and another who simply bulldozed hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them.  The current developer would have to destroy many more to build the 107 houses and infrastructure for the project and then plant new trees as mitigation (except that most replantings fail to survive.)

Another panoramic view from Hidden Oaks looking north.  The Canyon Hills project is at the center across Carbon Canyon.
The morning started off cloudy, though still humid, as we headed up the east side of Sleepy Hollow and moved onto the Hidden Oaks property, which borders that community.  An entrance road would climb from Carbon Canyon Road at Canyon Hills Road to the highest elevation of the hill, where a relatively flat pair of benches or table lands would contain most of the homes.

This view is southeast from Hidden Oaks towards Soquel Canyon and towards the North Ridge trail of Chino Hills State Park, from where hikers someday would get an uninterrupted view of 107 estate-sized homes if Hidden Oaks is built.
These areas, by the way, would also be those most exposed to high winds, just like the unprotected ridgelines of the in-process Canyon Hills development, which, inexplicably has been exempt from updated environmental impact reports even though it was first approved in the 1980s, when conditions were wildly different from now.  Except that, these higher-elevation locales are subject to wind gusts that will move wildfires faster, as will the gullies and canyons that lead up to these spots.

A newly-built fence with a sign for a habitat conservation area established by the Riverside Land Conservancy on a few hundred acres on the hills above and the lands within Soquel Canyon, adjacent to Hidden Oaks.
In the case of Hidden Oaks, which did have an updated environmental impact report, its proximity to Chino Hills State Park and other wild-land areas, there will also be more exposure to flying embers, which can travel up to a mile over cleared areas, fire protection zones and other mitigation measures.

A section of the habitat conservation area of the Riverside Land Conservancy tract within Soquel Canyon looking west towards Brea.
The current huge outbreak of fires in central and northern California, which have destroyed hundreds of homes and burned hundreds of thousands of acres, might seem a world away.  For now, southern California has been spared those kids of horrific conflagrations, but we'd be deluding ourselves if we thought we're not going to experience major fires this year or some time soon. 

Irrigation pipe laid out along the north side of Soquel Canyon Road looking west.
It is also delusional if the thought is that building more homes in wild-land areas, even with these "mitigation" efforts within tracts, is going to make the threat smaller. 

The walk took us to the far eastern boundary of the Hidden Oaks site, not far from the western edge of Vellano, separated from the former by some canyons, including Telephone Canyon, through which a road descends into Soquel Canyon.

The new gate to the Riverside Land Conservancy habitat conservation area in Soquel Canyon looking east towards Chino Hills.
There was a surprise--namely, that a few hundred acres between Hidden Oaks and the Vellano/Aerojet parcels has been obtained via a land bank mitigation by the Riverside Land Conservancy, an organization that states on its Web site (see here) that it has protected some 12,000 acres in Riverside, San Bernardino and nearby counties.

Throughout the parcel, there are brightly-colored flags marking locations for new plantings as a habitat restoration project is initiated.  Along Soquel Canyon Road, largely on the south side, though there is a patch of land on the north, as well, there are the beginnings of an irrigation system to water these soon-to-be-replanted areas.
Soquel Canyon Creek, which, hopefully, will have lots of water if predictions of a very wet El Niño winter are true.
As my fellow hiker noted, it is commonplace for developers to refer to overgrazed, fire-scorched, under-watered areas like those in our local canyons as "degraded."  This connotation seems intended to infer "irreparable," as if the only way to redeem these natural, though stressed, environments, is to bulldoze, pave and build estate-sized homes on them!

So, we'll see whether the Conservancy's efforts yield a successful outcome, because, if so, the idea of "degraded" landscapes will have to, in the main, be rethought.

Another flat section of the Hidden Oaks project, where 107 homes will be built if the project comes to fruition.
The walk continued west through Soquel Canyon, where there are times in which you can't see or hear anything from the "civilized" world that continues to encroach upon it.  Maybe that peaceful, relatively undisturbed environment is so "uncivilized" that it has to be developed into a civilized place full of motor vehicles, ambient light, and all that suburbia has to offer.

We continued up what my neighbor refers to as "Rock Canyon," a place that, in well-watered times, can be stunningly beautiful with large rock waterfalls, huge spreading oaks and other natural elements.  The question is: what will happen to this canyon when Hidden Oaks  comes to fruition?  Will it be a conduit for urban runoff from the 107 houses, its streets, and landscaping down to Soquel Creek?

A section of "Rock Canyon" which leads from Hidden Oaks' upper sections down to Soquel Canyon.
After a rather steep trek through dense growths of weeds and invasive plants, we emerged on the main bench where the majority of these homes would be built.  Skirting around a cadre of cattle, of which more and more have been let loose to overgraze areas like this, wreaking havoc on the oak and walnut woodland habitat, we headed back to Sleepy Hollow.  The hike was probably about five miles and covered in something like 2 1/2 hours.

Not far in to the walk, the skies started to clear, though there were some pretty impressive cloud formations in the sky, along with the admittedly excellent views, similar to those to be found at Canyon Hills and Madrona, the two other major approved projects within a short distance.

Soquel Canyon Road looking east with irrigation pipe for the Riverside Land Conservancy habitat conservation area lying along the north side of the road.
Next Wednesday the 23rd, as noted in an earlier post, there will be two sessions, from 4-5:30 and 6:30-8 p.m., of so-called "scoping" meetings, held at the McCoy Equestrian Center on Peyton Drive across from Ayala High School, about Hidden Oaks.  Representatives will be there to discuss the project, show site maps, and explain the findings of the environmental impact report.  Public comment closes on 14 October and then the matter will move on to the Planning Commission and City Council.

Those who care about what is happening in the canyon might want to attend this meeting and find out what is in store in upcoming years.  Approval by the city is likely certain.

A section of the road leading down from Telephone Canyon towards Soquel Canyon.


Sarah said...

Good Evening!

I have checked out your blog here periodically, as we are neighbors, and I do enjoy reading it. Discovered it after the 2008 Triangle Complex Fire, as we both covered it with our photos and write-ups (silhouettefarm.com). We live up Valley Springs, and have lived in Chino Hills since 1981.

This particular entry on the Riverside Land Conservancy was very important to find, because my husband and I routinely enjoy hiking OFF the main beat (read, the trails within the city) and prefer the solitude offered by the remote areas. We often trek to these same locations as you and your friend, but hadn't lately due to time constraints and rehab from surgeries. Whatever, we just recently came across this fenced off acreage, 313 acres, bordering to the State Park, which I assume must be to the North Ridge Trail (I was finding details about the property exchange. Seems it was purchased in December 2014 by the Riverside Land Conservancy, as the fencing and such wasn't there in November prior). It was rather dismaying to find that some of our roaming area was now eliminated, although we decided to pass on through anyway and take a look around. From our look-see, the plantings have been taking off well. They are using reclaimed water from the Vellano tract, a "mitigation" line has been set up, for the irrigation needs. We have noticed the pipe attached to a hydrant in Vellano and wondered where it headed, and why. Now we know.

One of the things that should be mentioned is, with these approved and proposed developments, WHERE are they going to get the water?! I feel that I should not be required to restrict my usage and let my property die so that developers can build out more of the canyon and with it require the associated increase in water needs. I'm curtailing and limiting my watering to conserve water, not benefit appropriation for use elsewhere. I don't think the city "gets it". Sorry, I rant. And the traffic is just beyond belief....especially for an F-rated highway, but what the heck, let's just pipe more vehicles onto it. Sorry, again I rant.....

Anyway, I appreciate your documentation of the canyon we both live in and share, and your experiences and discoveries. I know you will continue, it is a work of love for an area fast being diminished.


prs said...

Hi Sarah, thanks for the comment and the kind words and I'm glad that you check in from time-to-time. There hasn't been much info about the Riverside Land Conservancy property, though, as you know, it was acquired as a mitigation measure, which is good. What's not good, like you said, is the relentless effort to develop the canyon, despite the long-term drought, impossibility of adequate improvements for traffic, and the loss of rapidly-diminishing oak and walnut woodland habitat. Allowing the Hillcrest property to be developed under a 1980s "negative declaration" is an example of how the system is designed to put developers before communities. Hidden Oaks is next and it seems very clear that the city is ready to permit a zoning change to favor the developer, even though it is under no legal obligation to do so. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) becomes an obstacle easily overcome by issuing Statements of Overriding Considerations (SOCs) as another way to put developers first under the guise of broader community benefit. As development continues to eat up remaining open space, the pressure on local government to allow more building accelerates, but because the system is designed for developers, fighting new projects is all but impossible. Seeing what is going on with the California Coastal Commission and the Southern California Air Quality Management District is totally in-line with the problems faced in trying to properly conserve our environment in this era of accelerating climate change. So, are you ranting? Hardly. Thanks again.