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Site Worries May Doom Orange Housing Project

Developer says proposal will bring needed homes and amenities. Critics say proximity to dam and a dump is a problem.

August 11, 2003|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

Developer Steve Cameron of Fieldstone Communities Inc. can't understand why anyone would oppose his company's plan to build homes on a gritty sand-and-gravel site in eastern Orange that has been an eyesore for decades.

The proposal, Cameron says, will have it all -- 183 houses, miles of equestrian and bike trails, open space, a 6-acre park, wildlife habitat along Santiago Creek and $500,000 in seed money for a community center. Don't worry, he says, about the flood plain, the methane gas from the county landfill next door or the potential failure of nearby Villa Park Dam.

Despite three years of his trying to build public support with promotional brochures, Power Point presentations and a public relations campaign, not everyone is buying the Fieldstone line.

In June, the Orange Planning Commission deadlocked and failed to approve the project. Before the vote, scores of opponents attended public hearings to express concern about methane explosions, potential flooding and the loss of open space.

Now, community and environmental groups are circling again. This time they want the City Council to finish off the proposal Tuesday when it considers the company's appeal of the Planning Commission decision.

"The site is the issue, not the builder," said Jim Obermayer of the Maybury Ranch Homeowners Assn., which represents 1,100 residents on the north side of the project. "Future homeowners will have to live with the consequences."

Fieldstone, a major Southern California developer, wants to build houses on a 110-acre site on Santiago Canyon Road between Cannon Street and the Reserve, an upscale housing tract. Santiago Creek runs the length of the property, and the Villa Park Dam is about 1.2 miles upstream.

On the southwest side is the Villa Park Refuse Disposal Station, a closed 17-acre dump where a half million tons of garbage was hauled between 1962 and 1966.

Fieldstone is in escrow to buy the development site from Sully-Miller Contracting Co. as well as 7 acres on the other side of Santiago Canyon Road.

The main property has been used for sand and gravel operations, recycling pavement and crushing rock.

Steep mountains of gravel and jagged stone rise across the grounds. Over the years, nearby homeowners have complained about truck traffic, noise and dust.

Motivated by a shortage of open land, the company plans to clean or remove contaminated soil from the site and create an attractive landscape with homes ranging in price from $700,000 to $800,000.

"I can't see how a city council person or anyone else can turn their back on the project," Cameron said. "Given all the benefits that will be provided at no cost, it will be Christmas in August."

The property, however, is in the inundation zone of the earthen Villa Park Dam and the flood plain of Santiago Creek, a potentially powerful waterway that periodically breaches its banks.

During a heavy storm in 1969, the creek swept away homes in surrounding neighborhoods. If the Villa Park Dam were to break, opponents of the development say, it could bury the Fieldstone project under 15 to 20 feet of water.

State figures show that 45 dams failed in California between 1883 and 1965, many of them earthen structures.

Such dams also have failed in other parts of the country.

Though their effectiveness is debatable, Fieldstone has proposed building concrete revetment walls along Santiago Creek to contain the flow and check erosion.

Cameron says the chance of failure is minute and that other homes are already in the Villa Park inundation zone.

Bill Bouska, co-chairman of the Santiago Creek Greenway Alliance, agreed the risk of a dam collapse is low.

But building houses in the inundation zone and a flood plain, he said, "just doesn't seem like a wise thing to do."

Even if the dam holds and Santiago Creek remains contained, future homeowners in the Fieldstone project face another potential problem: methane gas from the old refuse site.

Project opponents say the Villa Park landfill is among the county's worst for methane because the gas can move readily through the site's porous soil.

Orange County Health Care Agency officials, who monitor county landfills, say they don't rank sites, but acknowledge there is a health risk from methane gas migrating onto surrounding property.

The county has installed devices on the landfill to monitor and extract methane. Fieldstone, on the recommendation of health care officials, also has agreed to take steps to capture and disperse gas that moves onto the property.

Precautions will be taken in about 70 to 80 homes, Cameron said. Control methods include an elaborate system of vents, monitoring devices, and impermeable liners beneath buildings and homes within 1,000 feet of the dump.

Plans call for utility vaults on the property and electrical conduits for all homes, and for breaker panels to be sealed or vented.

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