About 450 residents, some toting signs and threatening political retaliation, banded together Saturday protesting a Burnett-Ehline Development Co. plan to build a shopping center and gated residential community on 37 acres straddling Santiago Creek.
Opponents of the development, much of which would be built on an old golf course, fear that replacing the creek with culvert pipes and grading it to make it level could create flooding problems in the event of heavy rains.
A decade ago, the Rosewood community next to the golf course was condemned because homes were built over a filled-in dump, and protesters worry that the same could happen if the new development is approved. Instead, the demonstrators called for preservation of the open space for recreational use.
“From a scientific and logical standpoint, there is no way to divert a creek underground during flood season,” said longtime resident Bea Tomaselli. “It’s a disaster in the making.”
The proposed Villa Santiago project would require rezoning land presently designated as open space in the city’s General Plan to accommodate 160 single-family lots averaging 5,200 square feet. In addition, the project would include a commercial area along Tustin Street.
The developer has proposed replacing an earlier plan to extend La Veta Avenue with one to turn that area into a greenbelt, or buffer. For that to happen, the General Plan would have to be amended.
Folk music and informational speeches set the tone at W.O. Hart Park, where the protest march began. Demonstrators then walked the creek bed to the Tustin Street bridge carrying signs and wearing buttons reading “Save Santiago Creek.”
Several signs warned council members Joanne Coontz and Don E. Smith that Orange citizens will take note of their actions. Both Coontz and Smith have announced their intention to seek reelection in November.
“When it comes to election this fall, we’re going to watch how the council feels about open space,” said Ralph Masek, president of the Santiago Creek Homeowners Assn.
Masek and other organizers of the rally proposed soliciting private contributions and applying for public funds to buy the open space and protect it from ever being developed.
Dorothy Hudecek, a member of several environmental groups in Orange, proposed that the county sponsor a $300-million bond measure to purchase open space. If approved, the measure would result in county residents paying $20 a year to retire the debt on the bond, she said.
Michael Hennessey, an Orange resident and real estate expert, and others who attended Saturday’s rally called on residents and politicians to exercise “political will” in defending and acquiring open space.
“It just takes determination to get the funds,” Hennessey said. “This is a rare opportunity to get such open space” for such a low price.
“It doesn’t take a genius to see it’s perfect for a park,” he added.
The City Council must certify the findings of the latest environmental impact report before taking action to approve the project and rezone the area. A final decision is scheduled after a public hearing on the issue Tuesday.
Partly in response to public concerns, the proposed project has undergone several changes in the past two years, including a revision from 471 apartments to single-family homes. Public pressure has contributed to preventing at least three developers from building on the site.
However, if the council amends the General Plan to allow La Veta Avenue to become a greenbelt, the site will be closer than ever to development. In February, Burnett-Ehline’s current plan received the council’s “approval in concept.”