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Irvine Council Set to Vote on Growth Plan

Land use: Annexation proposal would add 12,350 homes and 7 million square feet of business and research space near El Toro.


Irvine officials will vote Tuesday on a development plan that would increase the size of the master-planned community by a third and serve as a blueprint for its growth over the next 20 years.

The proposed 3,600-acre development north of the city would include 12,350 homes and 7 million square feet of commercial and research facilities. An additional 4,100 acres would be set aside as open land, connecting the development with protected foothills to the north and Irvine's proposed Great Park at the closed El Toro Marine base.

The city's Planning Commission on Thursday gave its unanimous approval to the general plan--the first step toward a long-awaited annexation of the area.

If the council signs off, development on the first phase could begin within a year.

Irvine officials want control over what's built in order to make it compatible with the city's village theme. Irvine's residential areas are all within walking distance of neighborhood schools, parks and shopping centers. Officials see the so-called Northern Sphere as the final piece of the puzzle, completing a community that has served as a model for planned growth in Orange County.

But some residents are concerned about how the development will affect traffic. The homes are expected to add 30,000 residents to the town of 143,000. And, residents fear, adding several million square feet of business will turn the Santa Ana Freeway into a parking lot.

"If you were to put just the 12,350 homes throughout that land, there probably wouldn't be any concern," north Irvine resident Dave Melvold said. "It's the combination of the homes and the 7 million square feet of businesses that's overwhelming.... And we still haven't figured out what the new development at El Toro is going to do to us."

In March, voters shot down the county's plans to build an international airport at the closed Marine base, choosing instead Irvine's plan for a Great Park, which advocates say will rival New York's Central Park or Balboa Park in San Diego. The city is now negotiating to buy the base from the Department of the Navy.

Councilman Greg Smith doesn't think the city should wait for a fleshed-out plan at El Toro to decide on the Northern Sphere, but he wants to know how the two will interface. He wants to make sure there are no surprises in the plan. And he's not sure one evening is enough to figure that out.

"If there are still unanswered questions Tuesday, waiting a week for the answers pales in comparison to having to live with a lifetime of flaws that might be in the paperwork," he said.

But officials said approval of the general plan isn't a blanket approval for the whole development. The area will be built in phases over the next 20 to 25 years.

"We'll be looking at it very closely every step of the way, and there will be a traffic analysis done each time a tract map comes to the Planning Commission for approval," said Anthony Dragun, who chairs the commission. "We'll make sure each project meets our level of standards."

Also, Sand Canyon Road, Portola Parkway and the Foothill Transportation Corridor, which cut through the area, are underused and could handle overflow from the freeway, officials said.

Officials began working with the Irvine Co. on the blueprint two years ago and formed a community task force that met more than 30 times.

With all that, Mayor Larry Agran said he's ready to vote on the matter Tuesday. And he's happy with what he's seen so far, particularly with the amount of open space.

"We'll be able to say with absolute confidence that there will be no city in Orange County, and few cities in the Western United States, with as much natural open space woven into the fabric of the community," Agran said. "And with the approval of the Great Park, it's all right there in front of our eyes. We just have to grab it and make it happen."

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