By Staff Report

The Irvine Company (TIC) has been clearing brush from the hillsides around Chapman and Jamboree in East Orange, in preparation for construction of its Santiago Hills II 1,180-unit housing tract.

While the developer claimed it was just using weed whackers to cut vegetation, Santiago Hills resident Bob Hahn saw it differently.  He witnessed tractors with metal scrapers “removing everything down to dirt, leaving no vegetation to hold back soil or sediment.”  Hahn was concerned that a heavy rain would wash soil and debris either into the Peters Canyon reservoir, or into storm drains that transport runoff into the ocean.

Hahn tried to alert the city’s planning department, public works and even called the Irvine Company. No one got back to him, so he filed a complaint with the Environmental Protection Agency.  “This violates environmental guidelines,” he says. “About 25 percent of the area is now loose soil and tree stumps.  A heavy rain is going to wash this debris into the lake or clog the storm drains and flood Jamboree.”

Hard rain didn’t fall

It did rain, but not hard enough to do any damage. “I wasn’t worried about an inch of rain,” he reports. “I was worried about an El Nino condition.”

Eventually, he did hear from a city planner who told him that his concerns were justified; the developer was advised of the problem and by the next day, workers were on-site laying sandbags. Hahn is relieved, but wonder why precautions weren’t taken to begin with.

While many Santiago Hills residents have registered surprise and dismay over the coming development that will double the size of their quiet, relatively un-congested community, Santiago Hills II has been lurking on the horizon since 1999. Residents, like Hahn, have been vigilant monitors of The Irvine Company’s intentions. “We don’t want East Orange to look like Irvine,” one online blogger said. 

Sixteen years ago, a TIC plan for 1,746 homes was challenged in court by a 19-year old college student who feared that the foothill community where he grew up was going to be lost to bull-dozers. Chris Koontz reached a settlement with The Irvine Company in 2001. The builder agreed to a number of wildlife protections, improved runoff management plans and consultation with Native Americans about artifacts that may be found on the site.  Nothing, however, was built.

More houses, less hills

Four years later, the Irvine Company came back with a revised plan that called for 4,000 houses built along a six-mile stretch of Santiago Canyon Road, beginning at the intersection of Chapman and Jamboree.  The plan also included 2,500 homes near Irvine Lake.  The Orange City Council approved what was billed as a multi-phased development (Santiago Hills II, East Orange Planned Communities) and certified  its  Environmental  Impact Report (EIR) in 2005.  The Irvine Company immediately bulldozed the southeast corner of Chapman and Jamboree, plowing over native plants, uprooting wildlife habitats and leaving a patchwork of deep tread marks over the acreage.

A small group of foothill residents and Orange business owners calling themselves the Orange Hills Task Force worked with the Sierra Club to file suit  against what  they  considered a flawed EIR.  They argued that the EIR for the Santiago Hills II and East Orange projects improperly described the project, segmented environmental reviews, failed to adequately address water quality, and incorrectly analyzed traffic. The Irvine Company prevailed in the lower court and again in the superior court. By 2008, all legal remedies had been exhausted. But nothing was built.

In 2014, Irvine Company CEO Donald Bren announced that he was donating 2,500 acres of natural land in the East Orange foothills to the county, to be preserved in perpetuity as open space.  His donation eliminated much of the long-fought housing, but did not include the footprint for Santiago Hills II.

When the city granted TIC's entitlements for development in 2005, it gave the builder 15 years to use them. Those now-12-year-old entitlements are still valid, meaning TIC need only get tract maps and design elements approved before it breaks ground. The company has, however, reduced its original plans for 1,600 homes to 1,180.  This time, something will be built.

East Orange hills prepped for grading and construction

A brush clearing exercise conducted by The Irvine Company on the site of the future Santiago Hills II development left bare soil on the hillsides that could make a muddy mess out of storm drains in a downpour.