Orange Grove Lane - Design Review Process
Towns and communities across the country are struggling with the push for bigger and bigger houses that is changing, in some cases destroying, the character of established neighborhoods. Mission Canyon’s dilemma may seem unique, but it is not.
Our Canyon has a guide for development called the Mission Canyon Specific Plan, adopted in 1984. The intent was to have it updated every five years; we are still waiting for the first update. In spite of the clear language in this document that calls for maintaining the semi- rural character of the Canyon and preserving the characteristics of each corner of the Canyon, an erosion is taking place due in part to the piecemeal approval processes of the County.
When each of the County Departments—Fire, Environmental Health, Flood Control, Public Works, Planning and Development, Building and Safety, etc.—looks at a project, it evaluates its jurisdictional issues related only to that property and not to the surrounding neighborhood and larger Canyon. For instance, Flood Control will look at how storm run off is handled on the site as well as flows off the site, but does not evaluate the entire watershed capacity as to its capacity to handle more run off. Only after mudslides and disasters occur is there official recognition that the capacity of the area has been exceeded. Similarly with the input of County Fire: they might require adding a hydrant or widening a road, but they never stop a project because the Canyon cannot be evacuated in a safe and timely manner in the event of a firestorm. Density can grow in a series of small isolated events, but the perils of fire, flood and mudslides do not change.
The design review process, channeled through the Mission Canyon Architectural Design Board and the County Board of Architectural Review, has mostly kept the size, bulk and scale of new homes, or expanded remodeled ones, close to existing patterns, but usually after many painful sessions with many Canyon folk putting in lots of time, and sometimes at considerable cost, appearing at these meetings trying to moderate the scale of development and safeguard the natural beauty of the area. A case in point is the project on Orange Grove Lane on 9/10th of an acre. An antiquated 1928 subdivision map was the basis on which the County allowed the new owners to subdivide the property into 3 buildable lots. The first submittal by the developers was for 4 two-story, Mediterranean style structures, more suitable to downtown than Mission Canyon, totaling 12,000 square feet, with garages and parking to accommodate 22 vehicles.
After six appearances before the Mission Canyon Board and three before the County Board, the project now has 3 one story homes totaling about 9500 square feet. The historic adobe on the site will be preserved, but added on to with sensitivity. Although much improved, this still seems like a lot of square footage, when compared to the norm in the Canyon—1500-2500 square feet.
Because of the proposed development, County Fire is mandating that Orange Grove Lane be widened, paved, and curbed to 24 feet, wider even than Tunnel Road is in many parts of the upper Canyon. This makes no sense and makes no contribution to the real issue
which is wildfire evacuation of everybody out through the one egress road from the Canyon. Moreover, this widening and paving will alter the rural nature of the area almost as much as will the three structures.
To put this project in an even larger context, there are three other lots within a few hundred feet, all within the same watershed, all on even steeper parcels that are in the early stages of planning for development.
What lessons can be drawn from these pressures for development? First, Canyon folk need to carefully monitor each proposed project and each stage of each project. They need to be organized and politically active. Secondly, we need to be engaged with our political representative to reconcile the dichotomy between the Specific Plan and the piecemeal approval process of the County in favor of the Specific Plan taking precedence and being able to halt development.
Orange Grove Neighbors Group