The Orange County Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved a gated residential development in the Yorba Linda area, despite appeals from neighbors about the potential hazards of evacuating homeowners in a disaster such as a wildfire.
The Esperanza Hills project, which has been tied up in appellate court proceedings, has bounced back between the planning commission, the Board of Supervisors and the courts for the past six years.
As has happened in the past when the supervisors considered the project, residents in the area implored them to halt it due, mostly to fears there will be gridlock during a disaster because there is only one main road in and out of the community.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who represents the district where the 340 homes are to be built on oversized lots, cast the lone dissenting vote.
"The big issue for me is evacuation," Spitzer said. "It's not our first rodeo. This is our third stab at this... It's not a good project and it's been reviewed time and time again."
As residents filed out of the meeting, several jeered the supervisors, with one woman shouting, "Would you put your family members in that canyon?"
One comment prompted an indignant response from board Chairman Andrew Do.
"Sir, you are a racist? Why do you look at me and say, 'Garden Grove? Why are you singling me out?'" said Do, whose family fled his homeland during the Vietnam War and was a refugee before emigrating to the United States.
Spitzer said his district is prone to wildfires and that he was not convinced the Orange County Fire Authority got it right when it recommended the evacuation and fire safety plan for the project. Spitzer pointed to a delay in responding to the Canyon Fire 2 that allowed it to quickly spread.
"They didn't deploy resources for over an hour," said Spitzer, who serves on the fire authority board.
Despite several calls about smoke in the area shortly after the first Canyon Fire, "They looked across the freeway and because of the smoke and ash they didn't know they had a fire burning," Spitzer said. "So the issue here is not whether the experts are right or wrong. This is when you-know-what hits the fan, all bets are off ... I just can't get comfortable with this project. It just doesn't work."
Spitzer noted his fellow supervisors have overruled him in the past, but he asked them to reconsider in light of the rash of wildfires in the state.
"I'm not disparaging anybody," Spitzer said of his criticism of the OCFA. "But I don't think this is the right project because it needs two access points."
Do responded, "You don't mean to disparage anyone, but you did when you brought up the Canyon 2 Fire ... Calling into question the OCFA's competence in approving this project, to me, that's disparaging that whole department."
Do added that for fire officials, "their position has been consistent throughout. It is about experts being right or wrong and in this case who are our experts? If you don't trust our sheriff's department or our fire authority... then who do we trust? It is completely arbitrary to say these are people who have been entrusted ... but on this project we're not going to believe what they say. Does that even make any sense?"
Do said the board's responsibility is establishing policy.
"We don't wear the fire department's hat or the sheriff's department's hat," he said, "so we have to rely on them to give us their expert opinions ... And until there's some evidence to the contrary, we just need to do the right thing."
County officials tweaked the proposal to address Fourth District Court of Appeal rulings last October and in April.
The project is planned on nearly 469 acres north of the Riverside (91) Freeway off of Yorba Linda Boulevard and south and west of Chino Hills State Park. Officials say 62 percent of the project -- which planning commissioners approved on Aug. 22 -- will include open space, parks and landscaping.
Some neighbors are concerned that there is only one road in and out of the project. Stonehaven Drive is for the public's use, but there's an emergency vehicle-only road at Via Del Agua, officials said. The board previously approved the project on March 10, 2015, June 2, 2015, and May 2017.