Do We Need Low-Cost Housing in the Hills?

West Coyote Hills, July 2009 (Photo credit:Cindy Cotter)

Finally someone’s asking how — or whether — the proposed development of West Coyote Hills meets Fullerton’s housing needs. The answer is, not very well so far.  Fullerton has an excess of high-end housing and a shortage of affordable homes, yet Planning Commissioner Doug Chaffee says he sees no low-income housing  in this plan to develop the last open space in the city.

In an exhausting four-hour session last night, the Fullerton Planning Commission held the first of two public hearings on the proposal. The question, unsettled for about 30 years now, is whether the city should rezone Chevron’s last stretch of played out oil fields in West Coyote Hills, allowing Pacific Coast Homes, a Chevron subsidiary, to build houses and commercial property there.

A standing-room-only audience of more than 150 people spilled into the lobby where they could watch the proceedings on live television. Commissioners heard presentations by Joan Wolff, planning consultant for the city, and Jim Pugliese, project manager for Pacific Coast Homes.

There was standing room only at the Fullerton Planning Commission meeting March 10, 2010. (Photo credit:Cindy Cotter)

City staff and a phalanx of experts sitting in the first two rows answered questions from the commissioners, and then, two and a half hours into the meeting, responded to 64 written questions from the audience.

The issues raised were numerous and wide-ranging, but most significant to my mind was the question asked by Doug Chaffee, Vice Chairman of the Commission. He wanted to know whether it would be possible to include affordable housing in the development.

Doug Chaffee, Vice Chairman of the Fullerton Planning Commission (right) asks whether low-cost housing can be included in the plan to develop West Coyote Hills. Chairman Dexter Savage is on the left. (Photo credit:Cindy Cotter)

Chaffee said the city needs affordable housing. Pacific Coast Homes’ proposal includes some commercial development which can be expected to create 156 relatively low-income retail jobs as well as increasing school enrollments, meaning new teachers would need to be hired. Where will these new employees live?

“I could not find even a single affordable unit [in the plan],” said Chaffee. “That concerned me. If this does go forward, why are we not including some affordable housing somewhere in there? Particularly rental housing.”

He went on to say that building in West Coyote Hills is a “golden opportunity” to construct low-income housing without having to be concerned that the neighbors will object. There are no neighbors yet.

Chaffee is not the only person to have noticed that Fullerton, and much of Orange County, are short of low-cost housing.

California cities are required by state law to provide their fair share of new housing to meet projected needs. Through a complicated cooperative process, cities are given precise numerical goals for new housing units by income level.

Fullerton is lagging in meeting those needs. Very-low-income housing is in particularly short supply, with only eight of the 398 units required by 2014 having been produced or approved. The city has no more than half the new low- and moderate-income units needed to meet its allocation, but it has more than twice (237%) the new high-cost housing that it needs.

Lucy Dunn, President and CEO of the Orange County Business Council, said last month, “ We’re a little bit worried. If you look at our population demographics, we’re tending to lose our future middle-class.”

Providing a business perspective at a Feb. 25 meeting on the state of education in Orange County, she explained, “This is a high-cost county to live in, and young people — even with this economy, even with housing prices dropping — it’s hard for them to afford to stay here. And so our demographics are, we’re getting older, but we won’t have that tax base to fund our future needs, our municipal needs, if we don’t figure out how to keep our young people in Orange County.”

Joe Carreras, a program manager in land use and environmental planning at the Southern California Association of Governments, told me by phone that a lack of affordable housing in Orange County causes heavy traffic and air pollution as drivers make “almost heroic” commutes to their jobs from bedroom communities with lower housing prices.

Bob St. Paul, a senior planner for Fullerton, told me in a call this morning that housing is “market-driven.” The best the city can do is ensure that land is zoned appropriately and then provide “facilitative tools” for potential developers. For example, the city can identify locations that are available for development and explain criteria that a developer must meet in order to qualify for state or federal incentives to provide low-income housing. But right now, he said, “There’s probably not a lot of funding out there.”

There were also wide-ranging questions about traffic, water, air pollution, bike trails, gates, noise, earthquakes, landscaping, and even microbes in the soil. There seemed to be an expert for every question.

Mark Miller, city traffic engineer, when asked whether the traffic study is out-of-date and should be redone to reflect recent increases, said that traffic in Fullerton is down now, possibly due to high unemployment, rising gas prices, and more people riding bikes.

Pugliese, who was up and down all night between his front row seat and the podium, replied to a question about supplying water for the proposed development by referencing a mysterious deal he’s brokering between Fullerton, La Habra and Brea, but refused to give any details saying he wasn’t ready to talk about it yet.

“Our parent company owns the water rights and we’re working on a cooperative arrangement with Fullerton, La Habra and Brea to utilize those water rights to the benefit of all three cities, and as such we’re trying to solve our little water dilemma here in Fullerton. They’re getting a sweetheart deal.”

Brock Ortega, a wildlife biologist with Dudek and Associates, said there are more California gnatcatchers living in the open spaces of the Hawks Pointe development (also in West Coyote Hills) now than there were in the same area before the houses were built. Early plans for development were stymied when the gnatcatcher was listed as a federally protected species in 1993.

A few people seemed exhilerated by the meeting. St. Paul spoke of the breadth and depth of the research that preceded the meeting.

“Everything is being done that can be,” he said, and referred to the meeting as “amazing.”

But while some were exhilerated, others were anxious or angry. Many people in the audience wore buttons or t-shirts saying “Save Coyote Hills,” and one man expressed his exasperation with so much vehemence and at such length while the two of us stood in the lobby that someone asked us to step outside so people could hear the televised proceedings being shown there.

Debby Koken made her opinion about the proposed development of West Coyote Hills clear at the March 10, 2010 meeting of the Fullerton Planning Commission (Photo credit:Cindy Cotter)

After their second hearing on the matter next week, the Planning Commission will make a recommendation and turn the matter over to the City Council for a final decision. No date has been set for that Council meeting.



Filed under Housing, West Coyote Hills

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