Although the agenda holds only 5 items, Tuiesday evening should be full for the Tustin Planning Commission.
The first item is a General Plan Conformity Determination for property offered by the Irvine Company in the Marketplace. According to the staff report, the parcel was originally offered to extend Myford Road south of El Camino Real behind the Tustin Auto Center. So far, it has been used as access and excess storage for the Center. Irvine Company proposes to deed the property to the city.
The first of two public hearings for Conditional Use Permits will be postponed at the applicant’s request. The property, located at 155 S. Myrtle Avenu in Old Town, was purchased earlier this year. It looks like the new owner may ask for some new construction. The staff report gives no indication of the type of construction requested. However, since it is in the vicinity of the Wilcox Manor where a 3 ring circus has recently been approved, it wouldn’t surprise us if the enterprising owner were to build a flop house for guests too inebriated to drive home. We won’t know for sure until December when the owner will ask to have the application heard.
The second CUP is for a change to the Master Sign Plan in the Tustin Marketplace. Say, didn’t they just recently change this to just, “The Marketplace”? The request will keep the flavor of the signage in place while enhancing patrons’ ability to more easily find the store of their choice. The modification would allow tenants to place their tower signs with fonts specific to their branding. Other changes include temporary event signage and string bulb lighting. The Irvine Company is also asking to place a larger-than-life directory sign near The Home Depot. According to the staff report, the new signage is designed to enhance, not change, the flavor of the shopping center.
Item 5, Summary of Projects, will probably take the lions share of time on Tuesday. That’s because there are 13 retail projects, along with a slew of infrastructure construction, to discuss. In reading the staff report on the projects, the city staff should be justifiably proud of the work they have accomplished. New businesses include two new hotels and a dozen restaurants and shops. Which Which, a new sandwich shop in the “Tustin” Marketplace was recently visited by the editor and his family. Everyone agreed that, while the sandwiches might be a bit pricey, they were delicious – especially when washed down with one of the best chocolate malts in town. The shop is not just a diner, it’s an adventure.
We have been excited to see the progress made on the Vintage Lady in Old Town. After burning down two years ago, the owner was able to save the facade of the building. A new building, designed by local architect, Nathan Menard, is being erected behind the facade. It will be interesting to see how a modern building interfaces with its historic past. Knowing Nathan, no one will know.
Of cousre, we did notice a few items missing from the summary. Most notably, nothing was said of the Wilcox Manor CUP. Perhaps staff thought the evening may drag on a bit long. At some point, you just have to say no.
(Updated 08/20/13) You might call it the Phoenix Rising, although we would probably characterize it more as the Amityville Horror. It seems the boys at the Wilcox Manor just won’t take no for an answer and the city council is more than willing to sell the soul of Old Town Tustin for the sake of a few fundraisers.
Thanks to Lindburgh McPherson and Michael Demoratz, the Wilcox Manor is not just another historical property in Old Town Tustin. Although the two purchased the property several years ago and put thousand of dollars into restoring the dilapidated structure, it is their recent effort to turn the icon into a money-making enterprise that has made the house locally famous.
Since October of last year, Community Development Director Elizabeth Binsack has championed the cause of a profitable events center for the two. Along with her employees, they promulgated a glowing staff report that would make the owners of the Wilcox Manor appear to be the ambassadors for Old Town. This, of course is due in part to her vision of Old Town that sadly lacks input from the residents.
The report justified the granting of a Conditional Use Permit, without the necessity of an environmental report, by attempting to tie the property into surrounding property that is zoned differently. And, although it is true there is an apartment complex across Main Street, the fact remains that the Wilcox neighborhood, cut off by a cul-de-sac, remains a primarily residential neighborhood. The fact that other property on that side of the street is zoned for industrial use is a matter of circumstance (the city water well) and not opportunity.
It was clear, at that October meeting, the Planning Commission was desperately looking for a way to approve the CUP for their Wilcox friends while maintaining an air of impartiality toward Old Town residents. Jeff Thompson, then chairman pro tem, was clearly uncomfortable with the discussion, probably because he lived in Old Town. Newly sworn-in Commissioner Wisam Altowaiji recused himself from the discussion for living within 500 feet of the property. Perhaps Jeff should have done the same although that would have left only three commissioners to discuss the matter.
And discuss it they did.
For more than an hour, folks came to the podium to speak about Michael, Lindburgh and the Wilcox Manor. Many of the attendees were from non-profit organizations from outside the city. All of the supporters spoke glowingly of Michael and Lindburgh as friends, attesting to their character as fine, upstanding citizens. The staff report was inundated with, what turned out to be, mostly form letters from local neighbors that, apparently, the Wilcox Boys had prepared for their signature.
After the public hearing closed, the planning commissioners began deliberations. That public discussion showed their discomfort in having to put this in the public light. After an hour of discussion, however, they came together with eighteen modifications to the CUP before voting 4-0 in support. Then, it was off to the Tustin City Council.
A few days before that meeting, Demoratz and McPherson assailed Old Town residents Brent Ferdig and Linda Jennings. In a widely distributed letter posted to their Facebook page, the boys attempted to demonize Jennings saying she founded the Tustin Preservation Conservancy as a rival organization to the Historical Society. They accused the two of them of harassment and slandering the “good names” of Demoratz and McPherson.
Linda Jennings, for her part, maintained the Conservancy and the Historical Society had a good working relationship and the Conservancy even donated money for computers and other items.
From the letter:
They have gone on a campaign to slander our names and misrepresent what we are doing and who we are. Our supporters in Old Town have been told that they have confronted by people banging on their front doors stirring the pot on this issue. Now they have begun a campaign of going after potential partners – we were in negotiations on leasing a parking lot and they were able to reach the owner of the property before us and frankly – made it so we cannot lease this lot now.
It was interesting to see McPherson squirming when it had been discovered they did not have a complete agreement for off-site parking as they had previously indicated. The letter attempted to place the blame on Ferdig and Jennings for issues they had actually caused themselves. They later came back to tell their supporters they did not have to put anything in place, including the parking, until the CUP was approved.
Taking the matter before the Tustin City Council in November provided its own set of issues. This time it was outgoing councilman Jerry Amante, along with crony John Nielsen -who had been re-elected for another term- who found themselves looking down the double barrel of possible ethics and campaign violations. We pointed out in an article at the time that Nielsen was married to Erin Nielsen, the director of the Tustin Community Foundation. TCF had been the direct and indirect recipient of considerable funds that resulted from Demoratz and McPherson donating their home for charitable fundraising. So, the issue was continued to January, when fresh faces would arrive on the dais.
But, that caused a whole set of issues on its own when it was pointed out that not only John Nielsen faced conflict of interest issues, nearly the entire council had the same problem. When the item came up for discussion, the dais looked like a Shriner car full of clowns as Nielsen, Puckett and the Podiatrist Councilman ran off the dais after recusing themselves. Once the dust settled and City Attorney David Kendig cleared up who had to do what, the boys’ mouthpiece, David Hunt, Esq., asked for another continuance, citing “personal business issues” from the applicants.
At the time we opined the Three Amigos were also in an undesirable position because of their relationship with the Wilcox Manor. And, although use of the home was gratis for their fundraisers, we wondered (in print) what the Fair Political Practices Commission would think? Alas, the boys did not have to answer the question as they voted to continue the matter until September. That was at the request of Demoratz lawyer.
Apparently, Michael and Lindburgh are no longer burdened with personal issues as they have, once again, asked that their CUP be calendared for tonight’s meeting rather than wait for September as originally planned. Way back in November of last year, after the original Planning Commission meeting, Demoratz and McPherson asked the city council to consider their application with over forty line-item changes that would, essentially, gut the Planning Commission approved CUP.
Chad Ortlieb, who has been a vocal opponent of the Wilcox Manor CUP, has questioned whether the substantial modifications the boys are asking for would trigger a new application for a CUP. The most glaring amendment Demoratz and McPherson are asking for is a change from 24 total events to 36 paid events (leaving the number of free events unspecified). That has not gone unnoticed by the opposing side. In response to Ortlieb’s public concerns, it appears that McPherson is now on a witch hunt against Ortlieb. In a recent public records request made out to the city of Orange, he has requested information related to the personal use of Ortlieb’s work computers. It was hard to discern from the request whether McPherson was attempting to garner information for his own use or whether he was attempting to alert Ortlieb’s superiors of any personal use of the city’s computers (For the latest discussion, Ortlieb has sent a 28 page missive that dismantles city staffs’ rendition of the code supporting the permit. It’s hard to argue with fact).
Demoratz and McPherson have attempted to cloud the issue with the neighborhood by writing letters of support and having the neighbors sign them as if they came from them personally. This was pointed out by Martin and Tina Blenz in a letter penned by them opposing the events center CUP:
Please accept this as an opposition letter to the [Wilcox] application. It is with mixed emotions that we write this letter.
We were given a letter of support from Michael and Lindburgh. Since it was not written by us, we refused to sign….. The other letters show the same type font, date and format as ours.
The Blenz letter goes on to point out the issues they, as neighbors, have with turning the Wilcox Manor into an events center, citing the problems they now have with trash, liquor and parking. They also point out the apparent error by the city when they first purchased their property as it was not listed single-family residence as the tract map showed (and Binsack used in justifying the approval for the CUP).
There is also an issue of whether the application was subject to an environmental impact report. The city, citing law that they say supports their position for not requiring a report, has taken the stance all along that a report is not required. However, Ortlieb, a former city planner for Tustin and Jennings, President of the Tustin Preservation Conservancy, bothy believe that, due to the nature of the venue, one would certainly be required. From a recent letter by Jennings to the city:
Rather than enhancing the goals of the Cultural Resource District as listed in Resolution 4207, the proposed use will cause immense traffic congestion in the neighborhood, increase parking problems on residential streets, increase noise pollution, create health and sanitation issues from routine food service and cost Tustin tax payers’ money to monitor the activities, parking and event attendees.
Contrary to the findings of staff, it is our opinion that these factors constitute a significant environmental impact and should trigger a CEQA assessment.
Jennings goes on to say the granting of the CUP would alter the character of the Old Town residential neighborhoods.
And, we have to agree.
One thing is probable. Should the City Attorney erroneously tell the Tustin City Council that no recusal is necessary, it will mean the end of residential life as we know it in Old Town Tustin. An events center approval will mean even more parties, traffic and noise than before, all so the good friends of the City Council can make money. But, before that happens, we would like to point out a few things to the good councilmembers:
- A survey of the affected residents might shed some light on just how popular the idea of having an events center in the neighborhood truly is. It would go a long way to assuage the feelings of the residents that their voices are being drowned out by outside influences in the form of non-profits (and political candidates) who stand to lose a rich fundraising venue.
- Considering the complexity of the situation and the CUP itself, after having been worked over by a scared-stupid planning commission, a review of whether a CEQA report is necessary -by an outside agent- may be in order.
- Based on the over forty modifications the Wilcox Manor applicants made to the original, approved CUP, a new application de novo may be in order, regardless of what your Community Development Director may say.
- It may be appropriate to utilize the services of a law office that specializes in zoning and CUP matters to analyze this. The city attorney has demonstrated that he is too close to the players and basically ignorant of the true issues at hand to offer unbiased advice.
- John and Erin Nielsen, though separated, remain in a situation that would cause him to recuse himself as Erin continues as Director of the Tustin Community Foundation.
- This is a moneymaking business, apart from the generous fundraising the applicants have done in the past. Demoratz and McPherson stand to make upwards of $200,000 per event.
Should the city council approve the Conditional Use Permit, especially with the modifications proposed by Demoratz and McPherson, it is likely the fight will not be over. Both Ortlieb and Jennings have informed me that lawyers have been involved since early this year. That could make this another war that is quite likely to be waged in Superior Court.
Another consideration is the recent revelation that the FBI is now conducting investigations here in Orange County regarding campaign financing improprieties and corruption, along with ethics violations. Given that the Feds seem to be eyeballing conservatives in particular, the city council majority may want to distance themselves from this debacle in the interest of at least appearing to have clean hands.
There’s not much on Tuesday’s Tustin Planning Commission Agenda unless you plan to subdivide your property.
The sole item on the agenda is a public hearing on Code Amendment 2013-002 that would amend the subdivision code for the city. According to the agenda, the ordinance would remove outdated language, make sure city codes align with state codes and streamline the subdivision process. This is a comprehensive update on codes that haven’t been touched for 16 years. The original proposal was sent to the Planning Commission at the May 28th meeting to allow the commissioners time to consider the proposals.
If there is an item of concern, it is in the proposed “streamlining” process. The Community Development Department is asking to take total responsibility for coordinating all subdivisions including lot line adjustments and final tract maps. They also propose that the city council no longer be required to make final approval of maps as the work has already been effectively completed by the Planning Commission and the Community Development Department. This makes sense to us. The City Council is the primary legislative body of the city. While an argument could be made that Final Maps need some type of legal authority, the completion is actually administrative in nature and best handled by the Community Development Department.
That’s it for the week’s meetings. Please say a prayer for those who were killed and injured in the aircraft accident in San Francisco last week. 182 passengers were hospitalized, 49 in serious condition and 5 in critical condition. Unfortunately, 2 children were killed in the accident.
You may have noticed that I have been writing a few stories from around the county rather than about our town Tustin. That’s because, like many of you, I have been patiently waiting the production of the video for the May 7, 2013 meeting. Unfortunately, it looks as if we may be waiting quite awhile. As happened several months ago, the city has either delayed placing the video on their website, for some reason or, there were technical problems. My sources say that it is the latter. If the video does show up, we will report on it. In the meantime, here is the rundown of the upcoming Tustin City Council Special Council Meeting on May 13th as well as the regular Tustin Planning Commission on May 14th.
City Council Special Meeting
I’m not sure why the single item on the City Council Agenda was so urgent that our good councilpersons needed to fill an extra meeting to approve it. This is the same Item that appeared as Item 5 on the April 23, 2013 Planning Commission agenda last month. The Planning Commission did, with some amendments, approve the General Plan Amendment and Land Exchange Agreement between the city and South Coast Community College District. This is pretty much a straight land swap but it also calls for a new street that would add traffic to the area. The city of Irvine related their concern over the change in traffic patterns but were assured the Average Daily Trips would remain under the total that would trigger a new EIR. Of course, the residents in the Legacy may differ with that when the new street is built.
In any case, this appears to be pro forma and we are not really sure what the hurry was that a special meeting had to be called. Hopefully, the city will have repaired its video equipment before the meeting so we can all find out what the urgency was.
Planning Commission Meeting
It would appear the tour Community Development Director Elizabeth Binsack spoke of last meeting did not come to fruition. There have been no notices published on the city’s website as she said there would. Maybe before the next meeting.
Only one item of realy interest on the agenda tonight. That is a Public Hearing for a variance to construct an additional bedroom on an existing house without having to add additional garage facilities. The house is located in the neighborhood North of Irvine Blvd. and East of the 55 Freeway. Several remodeling and additions have been completed over the years and the staff are recommending, due to space considerations, approval of the variance. Unless there is some outrage by the neighbors, I doubt there will be much to discuss here.
The only other item on the agenda is the staff Summary of Projects
Mixed-use Hotel Project – It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that construction is well along on the new hotels near the Microcenter. This, to me, is the single biggest and most important project of the year, business-wise. Kudos to Elizabeth and her staff as well as the planning commissioners and the former city council for have a sense of vision when it came to this project. Several changes have been made to the original plans, all of which have been thoughtfully considered before approval. This project is not just a direct moneymaker but will generate income for the city and our businesses, indirectly, as well.
Goodwill Industries of Orange County – This project, a high-end secondhand store, met with opposition from former Councilwoman Deborah Gavello, who said she had issues with the type of store. In discussions with her, we found she had issues with Goodwill Industries (she’s not the only one). Staff are reporting the makeover of the store in Larwin Square is nearly finished and we look forward to seeing it open.
A new florist has opened its doors in an old florist’s habitat on the corner of El Camino Real. For years, we saw the dated florist shop as rather anachronistic, even for Old Town. We only shopped their once before taking our business elsewhere. The new shop, Elegant Hive Distinctive Flowers and Gifts opened last month with little fanfare. We look forward to a long future for the owners of this boutique flower shop.
Vintage Lady – The building nearly burned down last year. It has been a long process to restore this historic building. Old Town Tustin’s Nathan Menard contributed heavily in time and effort to getting this project going again.
Newport Avenue Bicycle Trail Reconstruction Project – OK, we have ridden this trail hundreds of times over the years and did not see a problem with it. But, if you want to make it look pretty, go ahead. It’s grant funded through OCTA funds.
Rawlins Reservoir – Construction of the replacement reservoir has begun and will be completed by the summer of 2013.
Tustin Legacy – Over 1000 apartments in three separate complexes are scheduled to be built in the next few years at the Legacy. As well, staff are reporting the Columbus Square neighborhood to be complete with the addition of 124 homes and townhomes that have been built and occupied (is it time for TUSD to reconsider reopening Heritage?). Additionally, the Fire Station 37 Relocation construction has been awarded to Erickson-Hall Construction Company. Groundbreaking took place in February. It will take about a year to complete.
The Bad – Graffiti. The city doesn’t say whether there is an upward or downward trend but reported 1634 incidents for the first four months of this year. From experience, I can tell you there is a surge in gang and tagging activity in Orange County. Tustin’s gang population is comparatively low but, remember, we live next door to the city with the highest number of gangs, per square mile, in Orange County.
This should make for a fairly quick night for our intrepid commissioners. Unless they have absolutely nothing to do with their private lives, I make the meeting at way under an hour.