27 September 2015

(Not So) Hidden Oaks Scoping Meeting

Required under the conditions of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), scoping meetings are said to be opportunities for public input before an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is prepared for a development project under application with a local jurisdiction.

In this case, the Hidden Oaks housing project, calling for the sale of 107 custom house sites on 537 acres south of Carbon Canyon Road between Sleepy Hollow and Mountain View Estates in the Chino Hills portion of Carbon Canyon, was presented in two sessions last Wednesday afternoon and evening at the McCoy Equestrian Center.

A map showing the 537-acre Hidden Oaks property with the clustering in three principal zones (excepting 5 segregated lots presumably for the project partners), which would require a variance on the existing zoning of one unit per 5-acre lot.  Click on any image to see them in enlarged views in separate windows.
Representatives from the firm contracted by the city (rather than the developer) to draft the EIR, as well as city planning department staff, were on hand to present an overview of the project.  Several of the partners proposing the project were also at the back of the room quietly observing the proceedings.

This blogger was at the second meeting and there were probably around 30 residents, along with the aforemnetioned, as the presentations were made, principally by Dave Crook of PCR, the contracted firm writing the EIR.  Among the key components discussed were:

  • The zoning for the property is one unit per five acres.
  • What the applicant proposes, however, is to request a zoning variance to cluster the 107 lots in a few core areas, so that lot sizes actually vary from a minimum of just over 13,000 to a maximum of 35,000 square feet.
  • This was, evidently, done at the behest of city staff, who apply "clustering" to other areas of the city, ostensibly to protect ridgelines and hillsides.
  • 449 of the 537 acres are to be in a "natural state" through seven open space lots.
  • Amenities include public and private trails, a private clubhouse, and a 3.8 acre park along the frontage on Carbon Canyon Road for the gated community.
  • A secondary emergency access road is needed and there are two locations:
    • One would be just a few hundred yards west of the main entrance at Carbon Canyon and Canyon Hills roads, close to where a thick grove of oak trees abuts against Sleepy Hollow.
    • The other would go eastward from the project into the Vellano community--it has been stated that the Vellano HOA is amenable to having direct access from Hidden Oaks (there is currently a secondary access from the Western Hills Oaks community in Carbon Canyon into Vellano).
A detail of the above map showing the projected location of a 3.8 public park along Carbon Canyon Road, though this park would require the partial destruction of a beautiful oak grove.  An alternate emergency access road, just a short distance west of the main entrance, would require further destruction of those oaks.
The EIR would analyze the project's effects on several aspects of the environment from traffic to aesthetics to biological resources to air pollution and others and then determine projected impacts, identify alternatives, and disclose a reduction and avoidance of impacts.

What the presentation did not discuss, tellingly, was that the city may issue Statements of Overriding Considerations (SOCs) that would accept mitigation altenatives from the developer that, theoretically, would "override" those impacts that are considered significant, unavoidable environmental impacts.

The reason this is important is that these mitigations could be applied anywhere in the city, even though the impacts are within Carbon Canyon, and this leads to a question of how we define "mitigation" in that context.

A detail of the above map, showing, in red, a proposed public trail at the eastern end of the project site.
The anticipated schedule is that technical studies and the Draft EIR will be prepared this Winter.  In Spring 2016, the Draft and Final EIRs will be reviewed, written and presented.  In Summer 2016, the Chino Hills Planning Commission and City Council would hold their hearings and make their recommendation (in the case of the former) and decision (for the latter).

The central question, it seems, is whether the request for a zoning variance is subject to the conditions of Measure U, passed by citizens in 1999, requiring a vote of the people of Chino Hills for any change in zoning from the General Plan.

This is related to a number of comments overheard at the meeting about why the applicant should be permitted (even with staff recommendations) to change the current 1 unit per 5 acres to the clustered arrangements.

The principal clustering of dozens of lots at the western end of the project site, a good distance from the main entrance and the more viable of the secondary emergency access roads to Vellano, which would be at the other (eastern) end of the site.
While it is true that the clustering would still present a "1-in-5" of sorts by keeping the total number of custom lots at 107 for 537 acres, that reconfiguration could present a range of problems.  

For example, unlike Oak Tree Downs across the canyon, which has much larger lots for its custom homes, Hidden Oaks would create lots in a few areas that would involve a much greater visible presence in many cases (this ties to the aesthetic component of the EIR), and require a more concentrated grading plan (relating to the air pollution aspects of the report.)

Another issue, separate from the EIR, is that the clustering could make it far more difficult to evacuate residents in the case of a major wildfire, because they would be packed into compressed areas within the development.

A smaller cluster on the project site.
There would also be a more concentrated destruction of the oak and walnut woodland habitat that is increasingly being obliterated by development in Carbon Canyon.  This is a major matter because two previous iterations of this project included the wholesale destruction of oaks and other elements.

Related to this is how much of the property is considered "disturbed," presumably because of previous destruction by other developers, though this was not discussed or explained at the meeting.  On top of this, there is the matter of significant areas of the project site featuring non-native invasive species, which could be considered a reflection of frequent wildfires (which are increasing in frequency in recent years) and the destructive impact on native species, which are cleared out and opening the way for the invasives.

Additionally, now that there is an oak tree ordinance in effect in the city, there would have to be replanting program requiring a certain number of replacement trees for each one destroyed.  The problem is that you can't really "replace" an old, natural oak by a planted one and, in many cases, the replanted items, whatever they may be, just don't survive.

This satellite view of the project site gives a better idea of the project's placement within the topography.
A clear visual demonstration of what can happen with the "mnaufactured landscape" concept is across the canyon at what is now the Elements project, formerly Pine Valley Estates.  Despite beautiful conceptual renderings of how the slopes above the houses would look with replanting, those areas look like desiccated moonscapes.

Questions and comments from attendees covered the public trails; water supply; sewers; visibility of at least 30 lots from Carbon Canyon Road; the destruction of ridgelines; the emergency access road alternatives; drainages from the property of runoff into Soquel Canyon, into which the property descends; the question of insurance availability because of fire risk and insurance companies being more reluctant to cover canyon homeowners; why the clustering was proposed; and whether a public park is necessary.

This legend for the map shown below identifies plant communities on the site--note the non-native invasives and the identified "disturbed" areas, totaling about 20% of the property.
On this last point, it was noted that the Western Hills Park, a few hundred yards east of the project site at Canon Lane and Carbon Canyon Road, is little-used.  Besides, to create the park, a beautiful, thick grove of natural oaks would have to be destroyed.  When planning director Jo Ann Lombardo asked the attendees whether they liked the idea of a park, almost everyone unequivocally stated they did not think one was needed.

Then, there was traffic, which seemed to be a top issue among many people in the audience, especially how the additional 1,000+ daily car trips would be "mitigated" by the city.  If mitigation consists of a traffic signal at Canyon Hills Road and Carbon Canyon Road and dedicated ingress/egress lanes to and from the project, how will these actually improve conditions, rather than contribute to their further worsening?

After the presentations, a conversation was had by several attendees and principal investor K.V. Kumar and his associates.  Kumar stated, among other things, that the project was designed to provide aesthetic beauty through fine architecture and other elements; that he and several of his partners intended to build and live in the community (and, strangely, not drive that much, cutting down on the projected car trips.)

The plant communities map for the project site, including significant swaths in yellow of areas permeated by non-native invasives and those considered "disturbed."  Much of this presumably involves areas burned by frequent wildfires and subjected to degradation by the butchering of a few thousand oak and other trees by previous developers.
Mr. Kumar clearly has much experience in selling his projects and projects a certain confidence and charm as he talks face-to-face.  Whether what he is saying will be reflected in reality has to be seen.  Meantime, those interested in knowing more about him can click here.  The list of his accomplishments, as stated, is very interesting.

So, there is now a 30-day comment period in effect for anyone to send in their concerns and suggestions before the EIR is drafted.  This timeframe is through 14 October and comments can be directed to Kim Zuppiger of the City of Chino Hills at kzuppiger@chinohills.org.

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