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Foes Threaten to Seek Referendum if Orange OKs Homes Near Old Dump

Some worry about gas leaking from landfill. Project is up for a vote but the council is split.

September 07, 2003|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

Opponents of a beleaguered housing development proposed near an old county landfill in eastern Orange are threatening to launch a ballot measure to kill the project if the City Council approves the 183-home project Tuesday.

Fieldstone Communities Inc. is seeking permission to develop more than 100 acres near the Villa Park Dam and an old Orange County landfill that continues to leak methane gas.

"Good land-use planning and environmental concerns appear to be secondary to the political goals of certain council people," said Shirley Grindle, a longtime community activist from Orange who is planning a petition drive against the project.

Opponents contend that the dam, flooding and erosion from nearby Santiago Creek, and potentially explosive methane from the former Villa Park Refuse Disposal Station pose risks for home buyers. They also say the site has long been designated open space in two community planning documents and could be used to make up for a shortage of city parks.

Fieldstone and county officials say the chance of flooding or dam failure is remote and that measures will be taken to protect homes from methane gas.

The latest flood plain map, revised this year by the Federal Emergency Management Agency at Fieldstone's request, shows the proposed homes are outside the reach of a 100-year flood but might be inundated by more catastrophic events.

Supporters say the development will provide a 6-acre park, a 7-acre equestrian center and 40 acres of open space with trails for bikes and horses. The land is now used by a pavement recycling company, which supporters of the housing tract say is an eyesore.

The threatened referendum is "another attempt by a small group of people to delay a project with a lot of benefits," said Steve Cameron, president of Fieldstone's Orange County division. "They are very vocal and believe very strongly in what they believe, but they don't represent their community."

Council members on Tuesday will consider changing the property's designation in the general plan from resource to residential use and removing the site from two long-standing community plans calling for open space.

The revisions, along with a zoning change and approval of the basic layout, will allow Fieldstone to buy the site and move forward with the project.

If the council sides with the builder, petitioners will have to gather the signatures of nearly 5,700 registered voters within 30 days to qualify the referendum for the city ballot. In a referendum, voters would be asked to decide the fate of the project.

"The numbers are there. We can get the signatures," said Jim Obermayer of the Mabury Ranch Homeowners Assn., which represents 1,100 residents north of the Fieldstone project.

Some opponents believe the five-member City Council has two members likely to approve the project and two who oppose it, with Councilman Mike Alvarez representing the swing vote.

Those likely to approve the project, they say, are Councilwoman Joanne Coontz, the beneficiary of a Fieldstone fund-raiser, and Mayor Mark Murphy, whose wife wrote a letter of support for Fieldstone in her role as board chairwoman of the Orange Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Bureau. Opponents are counting on votes from Steve Ambriz and Carolyn Cavecche.

Grindle says Alvarez is planning to run for mayor after he reaches his term limit next year and might vote for the project in an attempt to attract financial support from Fieldstone and other developers.

"I don't know how true that is," said Alvarez, who usually supports open-space measures. "If you look at my campaign statements in the past, [the developers] are not there."

Alvarez said he is leaning toward the project but has questions about a possible school on the property and the effectiveness of methane controls and retaining walls to prevent erosion along Santiago Creek.

The threatened referendum is the latest development in one of the most contested housing developments in recent city history. Scores have turned out at public hearings and written letters to council members.

Fieldstone has spent three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to build support for the project with the help of public relations, media and political consultants.

The company has recently been polling Orange residents, and lobbyist Scott Baugh has contacted council members on behalf of Fieldstone.

Baugh is a former Republican Assembly leader from Huntington Beach who was fined $47,000 by the state for political misconduct stemming from his 1995 election.

"They've pulled out all the stops for this one," said Cavecche, who declined to discuss her position on the project. "I've run for office three times in this city and this has been an issue in every single election. You have to give Fieldstone credit for its tenacity."

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