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Orange County

Irvine 'Sub-City' Plan Attacked

Land use: Neighbors feel broadsided by housing development that would wipe out farmland. Officials, who will vote Tuesday, say plan matches city goals.

June 10, 2002|TINA BORGATTA and EVAN HALPER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It's pitched as the glorious final chapter for one of America's most manicured communities, one that will fill other cities with envy.

The blueprints approved unanimously by the Irvine City Council last week call for squeezing a sub-city of 35,000 residents--about a fourth of the city's current population and roughly the size of San Juan Capistrano--into one of the busiest sections of Southern California, near the high-rise corporate campuses of Irvine Spectrum.

But the plan, which goes before the council for its second reading and vote Tuesday, has run into objections from city residents and environmentalists. They complain that the city will lose too much of its agricultural heritage in this buildup, and that there is no room for another chapter of mega-growth in their model city.

The "villages" that would make up the Irvine Co.'s so-called Northern Sphere would be packed into about five square miles wrapped around the former El Toro Marine base. County voters recently killed a plan for a major international airport on the land.

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250,000 Trips Per Day

The numbers are staggering. Cars would be making as many as 250,000 trips every day on already-clogged freeways and surface streets, tens of thousands of trips more than an airport would bring.

About six square miles of parks and preserves would be set aside as part of the deal. But much of the city's remaining farmland--about four square miles that include citrus groves, row crops and the 450-acre Hines Horticulture Inc. nursery--would be wiped out. It's all too much for some residents, who see the project as epitomizing the urban ills they moved to Irvine to escape.

Some decry the "Los Angelization" of the orderly city, noting that the conveniences they sought in Irvine are rapidly disappearing. Once-clear intersections are jammed. Long lines at businesses and public offices are a routine inconvenience.

Now this.

Neighbors feel broadsided. They complain that approval was moving forward for this massive development while their attention was focused on fighting the airport. What especially irks many who live nearby is that the Irvine Co. is using thousands of development "credits" it gained by not building homes approved in other, often wealthier, parts of town. Those credits are now being cashed in the northern part of the city.

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'Caught in Shell Game'

"We're caught in a shell game," said Richard Deskin, a 22-year resident of Irvine who sat on a citizens advisory panel to the project. "They're taking 8,000 homes that were supposed to go in other places and dumping them here."

City and company officials say the banking of units is consistent with long-range goals drafted years ago. They offer charts showing the Northern Sphere will be no more dense than other neighborhoods in town.

"We're not doing something that's greatly different than in other areas," said Anthony Dragun, chairman of the city's Planning Commission.

He and others say the project will generate jobs and sorely needed housing, preserve an impressive swath of open space and bring in $5.7 million in annual sales taxes.

As for the farmland, city officials say there is no sense in saving the bulk of the 3,100 acres that will be used by the project. Large-scale agriculture operations are not the highest and best use for land in the middle of an urban environment--especially when the land can be used to ease the county's housing shortage.

About 1,700 agriculture jobs would be lost. They would be replaced by about 17,660 jobs inside office buildings.

"There's a rapidly eroding supply of land for agriculture in Orange County as you see all the development going in around the county," said Don Dressler, president of Western Growers Assn.'s insurance services division. "Also, we have some unique soil and climate conditions, particularly in the Irvine area, that are hard to produce in other areas. Tomatoes, peppers, green beans--they're all crops that can't be produced elsewhere in the same amount of time that they are here."

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City Rebuked in Past

It remains to be seen whether courts will uphold the argument that farmland isn't worth saving.

The last time Irvine made that case, the city was sued by environmentalists, then rebuked by the state Superior Court. That conflict involved 600 acres of strawberry and bean fields on which the company planned to build offices as part of an expansion of the Irvine Spectrum.

Judge William McDonald's ruling in January noted that the city's general plan had a stated goal of agriculture preservation, yet the proposed Irvine Spectrum expansion involved agricultural land being destroyed with little effort to mitigate the loss.

McDonald wrote that it was unacceptable for the city to write off alternatives that would preserve farmland because the Irvine Co. wouldn't accept them.

"The desires of the Irvine Co. do not govern the [California Environmental Quality Act] requirements for the project," he wrote.

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