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A Milestone in O.C. Development

Orange's approval of nearly 4,000 homes in nearby foothills means that all large acreage that can be built on in the county is spoken for.

November 10, 2005|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

The Orange City Council's unanimous approval of the Irvine Co.'s plan to build nearly 4,000 homes in the foothills east of the city marks a milestone in the county's steady march toward urbanization, planning experts said Wednesday.

The decision late Tuesday sets the development blueprint for 6,800 acres stretching from the eastern edge of Orange toward Silverado Canyon -- one of the three remaining large parcels of land slated for development in Orange County. After those projects are completed, Orange County will be virtually built-out except for protected open space.

The county "is involved right now in a slow turning of the page," said Marlon Boarnet, chairman of UC Irvine's department of planning, policy and design. "We are close to writing the end of one chapter while the next chapter is opening."

The last half-century of development in the county was dominated by master-planned suburban communities, such as the ones planned for the canyons east of Orange.

In contrast, the next chapter is higher-density high-rise housing and the recycling of developed land. The transformation is already visible in the high-rises springing up on Jamboree Road in Irvine and several others proposed around Angel Stadium in Anaheim. The closed El Toro and Tustin Marine bases are giving way to thousands of homes, parks and commercial buildings.

Orange County's remaining open land is slated to be built out in the next two decades or so. The Irvine Co. said it would be at least 20 years before it completed its east Orange communities, which are in an unincorporated area scheduled for annexation by Orange.

A similar timeline is projected for the 23,000-acre, 14,000-home Rancho Mission Viejo project in South County, which was approved last year. The third of the large parcels slated for development is Mountain Park in Anaheim, also by the Irvine Co. The city approved 2,500 homes on 3,000 acres in September. Construction is expected to begin next year and take five to seven years.

In Orange, the Irvine Co. came under heavy criticism by opponents who favored concentrated development on the western side of the project area, leaving a larger portion of the canyons untouched. In response, the Irvine Co. eliminated 50 luxury homes from 45 acres on the eastern side.

"Development is never easy and always takes time," said John Christensen, an Irvine Co. spokesman. "But throughout the planning process in Orange we had a very productive dialogue with a variety of interested parties."

But opponents were not swayed. Tuesday, they parked a bulldozer in front of City Hall to drive home their point.

Inside, council members expressed ambivalence before approving the plans, which include a public marina in Irvine Lake, a golf course, a sports park and 4,300 acres of wilderness areas.

"I'm not thrilled that we have this proposal in front of us," Councilwoman Teresa Smith said before voting. She and the other four council members acknowledged that they were saddened to see development transform the bucolic canyons along Santiago Canyon Road.

But growth is inevitable, Smith said, and "we've come up with a reasonable project."

John Ufkes, chairman of the Sierra Club Orange Hills Task Force, which opposed the development, said the group would explore its options in fighting the project as the Irvine Co. seeks city approval on grading and building permits.

"We are just going to have to take our halftime break," said Ufkes, an attorney, "and build momentum for the third quarter."

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