Residents petition to preserve school sites

More than 400 Huntington Beach residents have signed a petition urging the city to preserve a pair of former school sites that a developer seeks to turn into residential communities.

The grass-roots campaign, known as Save Our Fields, plans to bring the signatures to the City Council before it votes on the project Nov. 5.

Tri Pointe Homes, an Irvine-based firm, hopes to build 130 houses on the sites formerly occupied by Lamb and Wardlow elementary schools.

Tri Pointe seeks to demolish the existing school buildings and have the property rezoned for residential use. Members of Save Our Fields argue that the development will cause traffic congestion and other problems, and take away some of the last undeveloped space in Huntington Beach.

Before the council vote, the Planning Commission is scheduled to vote on Wardlow on Sept. 25 and Lamb on Oct. 9. The petitions Save Our Fields has circulated are addressed to both the council and Planning and Building Department.

Annette South, who lives by the Lamb site, called the area an ideal place for family recreation.

"The kids don't have any other place to play," she said. "I have four grandchildren, and if they close this place down, where will they go? Play in the street?"

In a document that member Holly Derheim submitted to the Planning Commission on Tuesday, Save Our Fields outlined more than two dozen concerns about the proposed development, including the possibility of children crossing a dangerous intersection to go to school, the incompatibility of Tri Pointe's two-story homes with the single-story surrounding neighborhood and the decrease in available soccer fields for AYSO and other groups.

In addition to the grass-roots effort, Save Our Fields has enlisted legal help for its cause. Los Angeles attorney Stanley L. Friedman wrote to the Planning and Building Department calling the development "ill-planned" and "dangerous," while the Law Offices of Hutchens & Hutchens in Bellflower have also promised support.

Tri Pointe officials said they sympathize with those who want to retain the open space but that the Fountain Valley School District had clearly intended it to be developed when it put the land up for sale.

In 2005, after the district declared the Lamb and Wardlow sites surplus land, the city negotiated a deal to buy 2.6 acres of the Lamb property and six acres of Wardlow. Both sites are now preserved as park land, and the latter is home to the Huntington Valley Little League.

The district put the rest of the property up for bidding, and Tri Pointe got the nod last year. Tri Pointe Vice President Tom Grable said the company hopes to start construction in 2013 and have the homes ready to sell the year after.

"We know that we're changing something in their neighborhood, but that change is really something inevitable," Grable said. "When these properties were designated as surplus land, it was clearly understood that the rest of the property was going to be developed."

Grable noted that Tri Pointe has hosted community meetings since January to address residents' concerns, and that many people who lived in the Lamb and Wardlow areas had voiced support for the developer's plans.

Addressing other issues raised by Save Our Fields, he said the new homes, on average, will be only several inches higher than the existing ones, and calculations show that traffic will be no heavier than its current level.

As part of the Lamb site development, Tri Pointe has agreed to renovate the existing city park on the property with a basketball half-court, tot lot and 150-by-240-foot practice field. According to David Dominguez, the city's facilities, development and concessions manager, that field will be large enough for AYSO matches.

Currently, though, AYSO operates three fields on the Lamb property, according to Alan Gandall, the commissioner of AYSO Region 117. If the other two fields go, the displaced teams will have to find a new home elsewhere in town.

"We've enjoyed that there for years and years and years," Gandall said.

Soccer game arrangements notwithstanding, the school district hopes the funds from the two sites will benefit children for years to come.

The district has asked Tri Pointe for $35 million for the properties and plans to keep them in escrow until the city approvals come through, said Stephen McMahon, assistant superintendent of business services.

Lamb, at 10251 Yorktown Ave., closed in 1979 and served as the Huntington Beach Union High School District's headquarters from 1980 to 2006. Wardlow, at 9191 Pioneer Drive, closed in 1982 and later housed a Boys & Girls Club location, which has also since moved.

McMahon said the money the district makes off the sale will go to an endowment fund that would add new programs or maintain existing ones.

"It might be music or libraries or something like that," he said. "Nothing's been designated. But the board has begun talking about it."

Twitter: @MichaelMillerHB

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