The Orange City Council on Tuesday scrapped a controversial housing development, avoiding an unprecedented showdown at the polls that would have left the project's fate in the hands of voters.
Last month, a divided council granted changes to the city's land-use plans that allowed Fieldstone Communities Inc. to build 177 homes in a 110-acre parcel in eastern Orange.
Opponents of the project had argued that the site is unsafe for homes because it is in a potential flood zone and next to a closed landfill that continues to leak methane gas.
More important, the critics said, the city was granting development rights on one of the last remaining large parcels of undeveloped land in Orange when the city needs open space and parks.
Fieldstone and its backers countered that the site was safe and that its current use as a sand and gravel field is an eyesore. The project offered more than 50 acres of open space and parks.
After the council's approval of the project, opponents gathered enough petition signatures to force a citywide referendum to try to reverse the council's vote.
Tuesday's unanimous decision means that the election will no longer be necessary. Without the land-use changes, Fieldstone cannot develop the site as planned, and the city must reinstate the original zoning.
"I'm elated," said Stefanie Holcomb, co-chairwoman of Orange Citizens for Parks and Schools, the group that initiated the petition.
In explaining why he changed his position, Mayor Mark Murphy said the project had divided Orange and a referendum would create further conflict.
Murphy then invited Fieldstone to come up with a different project that could garner broad support. The decision to rescind the approval, he said, "doesn't rule anything in, and it doesn't rule anything out."
Steve Cameron, a Fieldstone official, said his company will consider other options, including redesigning the project.
The clash over the Fieldstone project underscores a new facet in development battles in Orange County. As land becomes scarce, developers are turning to parcels in more densely populated areas, and they are meeting with fierce political resistance from residents over such issues as traffic congestion, overcrowded schools and lack of open space.
In Orange, Fieldstone proposed to clean the sand and gravel field and build homes ranging in price from $700,000 to $800,000. It also promised to build a 6-acre public park and a nature trail along Santiago Creek, which runs the length of the property.
The critics said the entire project could end up under water if the Villa Park Dam breaks about 1.2 miles upstream. The property is also in the flood plain of Santiago Creek, a potentially powerful waterway that periodically breaches its banks. The developer pointed out that there are several homes in the area already and that the risks of flood are minimal.
There was also the matter of methane gases from the Villa Park Refuse Disposal Station, a closed 17-acre landfill next to the property. The county, which owns the former dump, has installed equipment to extract the gases, and Fieldstone said it would take additional measures to capture any methane that migrated to its homes.