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Orange County

Court Throws Out OK of Irvine Co. Complex

Development: Judge's ruling says huge office project is inconsistent with the city's general plan.

January 11, 2002|SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An Orange County judge threw out the approval of a massive office complex the Irvine Co. planned to build on strawberry and bean fields near the former El Toro Marine Corps base.

Superior Court Judge William McDonald ruled last week that the 10-million-square-foot project, which had been approved by the city of Irvine, was inconsistent with the city's general plan.

The judge's ruling stated that the city "failed to comply" with clear requirements of state law because it did not consider the project's impacts on dwindling farmland, ground-water contamination, and other issues.

The city also failed to look at alternative proposals solely because they weren't acceptable to the Irvine Co., McDonald said.

"It is one of strongest decisions we've ever experienced. This clearly shows that Irvine is a company town," said Bob Caustin, founder of the Newport Beach-based environmental group Defend the Bay, which successfully challenged the plan in court.

"They were not representing their citizens nor were they representing the community. They were representing the Irvine Co. very well, though."

Defend the Bay sued the city in June, saying the city's approval violated state law because the city failed to address significant effects on open space, water quality, traffic, air pollution, ground-water contamination, electricity usage and other issues.

In May, Irvine council members voted unanimously to rezone 604 acres of agricultural land on the northeast side of the city for research and industrial use.

That cleared the way for 10.2 million square feet of office space southeast of Jeffrey Road and north of Interstate 5.

The Irvine Co. parcel, which is unincorporated county land in the city's sphere of influence, houses one of the last expanses of farmland in Orange County.

If the project is built as envisioned, it would bring more than 16,000 new jobs to Irvine, although 2,200 farm workers would lose their employment.

At the time of approval, city officials said the benefits of the development, including donated park space and new property taxes, outweighed negative impacts, such as increases in air pollution and traffic and worsening the housing shortage.

Irvine Mayor Larry Agran said he is confident the city can alleviate the judge's concerns.

"Those sound like fairly traditional recitations of deficiencies that are easily remedied by additional environmental review work," he said.

"We are of the view that the city did an excellent job in preparing a thorough environmental review document. To the extent that the judge cited some minor deficiencies, that can and will be remedied."

An official with the Irvine Co., which had hoped to have the site built out in 2005, said the judge's decision could cause a six-month delay.

"We're surprised, given the reputation the city has for the quality, depth and comprehensive nature of their [environmental review] work," said spokesman John Christensen.

"We're confident we can work with the city and address the concerns raised by the judge."

Caustin, though, says he believes the ruling could kill the project.

"In the long term, I think we'll be able to stop them," he said. "The next step is trying to get the city of Irvine to change its position from destroying what many of us moved here for to preserving it. You can't just wipe out all that [farm] land."

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