Laguna Confronts Irvine Over Home Building

More housing to replace commercial property planned near Irvine’s Great Park violates state environmental standards and poses unacceptable impacts on neighboring Laguna Beach, city officials stated in a formal protest with the city of Irvine.

Laguna’s letter issued last Friday calls on Irvine to reduce the project’s density and to redraft a more detailed environmental impact report, reopening the revised housing plan to public scrutiny, or go back to its original plan with fewer homes.

The statement opposes the proposed 10,700-home residential community, more than double the original 5,000-house plan known as Heritage Fields.  The developer is Aliso Viejo’s Five-Point Communities, a developer of master-planned communities.

The changes in housing density do not comply with the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act, according to Laguna officials in critiquing the EIR on the proposed Heritage Fields plan. Moreover, Irvine failed to consult with Laguna about the impact additional housing would have on Laguna’s city services, also a CEQA requirement, the letter claims.

The anticipated number of new residents, up to 40,000, from Heritage Fields would adversely impact Laguna’s beaches and vex already difficult parking and traffic circulation problems, especially since Great Park amenities have yet to be fully developed, the city’s analysis stated.

“According to the anticipated population for the Great Park area, at least 435 acres of additional parkland will be required,” according to the city’s statement. “Currently, there are no existing public or private neighborhood parks with the project area…there is no requirement that this planned park space will be developed before the residential units will be built.”

Further, the letter says Irvine’s EIR should require park in-lieu fees and or parkland dedication requirements so that new residents will be provided recreational facilities in a timely manner. Traffic in Laguna would also be greatly affected with an even slight increase in trips along Laguna Canyon Road, the report avers.

Secondary effects in Laguna include increased demand for police, fire and lifeguard services, as well as detrimental effects on air quality and increased stress on nearby protected wildlife habitats.  “These open space areas are precious resources that Laguna Beach residents have generously funded through special taxes,” states the report, compiled by City Manager John Pietig, city staff, special outside counsel and a traffic engineering consultant.

Pietig said the City Council held closed-door sessions to discuss their concerns with the modified Heritage Fields plan but added that the final statement sent to Irvine was not formally reviewed by council members.

The city’s 47-page response (available at http://www.lagunabeachcity.net/civica/filebank/blobdload.asp?BlobID=8451) refers to an EIR as “an environmental ‘alarm bell’ whose purpose it is to alert the public and its responsible officials to environmental changes before they have reached ecological points of no return.”  Irvine, the statement continues, has failed to do this.

FivePoint revised plans for 1 million square feet of commercial space to accommodate the additional housing. The shift to residential, traditionally a more profitable market than commercial property, was made to help fund and develop the $1-billion-plus Great Park, according to a Five-Point spokesperson.

The city further complains that Irvine’s draft EIR does not fully explain the changes or their need, which contradicts the purpose of an EIR to provide sufficient information.  It also states that Irvine failed to analyze the impacts the additional houses would have on neighboring communities.

The city of Irvine has 10 days prior to any public hearing on the project to respond to Laguna’s argument.  “If the project goes forward,” said Pietig, “there will be a lot of hearings.”  Irvine’s Planning and Development Manager, Barry Curtis, said Wednesday that he has received Laguna’s statement.

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