An overflow crowd gathered Tuesday as the Orange City Council began considering an Irvine Co. proposal to build nearly 4,000 homes in the city’s rural eastern canyons, a project that would be one of the county’s last major developments.
The council was not expected to vote on the project Tuesday, instead hearing from supporters and opponents of the project.
Tammy Warren supports the plan. “I would love to see all of the open space in Orange County remain,” she told the council. “But I think we have an obligation to our children to provide housing for them.”
Nicholas Terpstra had signed up along with more than 200 other people to tell the council what they thought. He said he was going to tell the council that traffic in his neighborhood already was snarled during rush hour and this would make it worse.
Eastern Orange is one of the county’s last large parcels slated for development. The 23,000-acre Rancho Mission Viejo in South County won development approval for 14,000 homes last year, and the Irvine Co.'s Mountain Park project, which will put 2,500 homes in about 3,000 acres at the eastern edge of Anaheim Hills in Gypsum Canyon, won approval this month.
The Irvine Co. is proposing over the next two decades to build two developments that would encompass about 6,800 acres of canyon land at the foot of the Santa Ana Mountains. The area will eventually be annexed by Orange.
Under the plan, the developer will build 1,642 homes, including a 128-unit low-cost condominium project, on nearly 500 acres straddling Chapman Avenue, just east of the Foothill toll road.
The second parcel stretches 6,300 acres east of the toll road and surrounds Irvine Lake. There, the Irvine Co. is seeking initial approval to build 1,065 homes on the western portion of the community and zoning changes that could lead to a total of 2,350 homes.
The two communities combined would have nearly 5,000 acres of open space, including neighborhood parks, a 20-acre sports park, a golf course and about 4,300 acres of wilderness. No large-scale commercial development is planned.
Responding to criticism, the Irvine Co. has dramatically cut back the plan from the 12,000 homes that would have been allowed under a city general plan approved in 1989.
The company announced its new plans in 2003, two years after company chairman Donald Bren set aside 11,000 acres as open space, much of it in eastern Orange, limiting where development could occur.
The eastern Orange projects represent not only some of the last large housing developments remaining in the county, but also the completion of development of the historic Irvine Ranch, 93,000 acres that stretched from the Pacific to Riverside County.
From Newport Beach through Irvine and portions of Anaheim, the development of the ranch has given shape to much of Orange County. More than half the ranch has been set aside as open space.
But opponents of the eastern Orange plans say even the scaled-down development would damage the area’s pastoral nature. The swath of rugged canyon land is popular among weekend motorcycle riders who wind down Santiago Canyon Road toward the popular Cook’s Corner at the junction with El Toro and Live Oak Canyon roads.
Under the plan, which the Orange planning commission approved last month, Santiago Canyon Road would be widened from two lanes to four eastbound from the Foothill toll road and six westbound from the freeway.
Conservationists worry that the development would cut off a wildlife corridor that runs from Chino Hills State Park to the north, through the canyons to the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park to the south.
“We have an island of open space in the Santa Ana Mountains with very little built on,” said Alex Mintzer, an Orange resident and member of a Sierra Club task force challenging the plans. Development “will kill the character of the area.”