3/7/19 Planning Commission Meeting Highlights

Commissioners Present:
Michael Carroll (Kuo)
Steven Huang (Khan)
Dustin Nirschl (Fox)
Jeff Pierson (Wagner)
Greg Smith (Shea)


  • Heritage Fields’ request for approval to amend their contract with the city with regards to their development project in Area 51 of the Great Park sheds light on how limited commissioners and city council members are with regards to their ability to control development once the city signs development contracts with developers.

When Heritage Fields entered into the development contract with the city of Irvine in 2010, Heritage Fields got contract approval for 1,056 affordable housing units by means of the State Density Bonus designation process which allows the units not to be counted towards the density cap of 9,500 residential units.  Heritage Fields now petitioned to have the same units retroactively declared as Additive Units under city policy and under the terms of Irvine’s General Plan. This results in Heritage Fields being able to build 1,056 more market rate housing units which do count towards the 9,500 density cap. The additive designation serves to increase the term of affordability from between 35 and 55 years to “in perpetuity”.

Note: Heritage Field’s contract with the city allows density bonus and additive density unit designations.  It does not disallow having both density bonus and additive designations, nor does it disallow retroactive additive designations. Thus Irvine is contractually committed giving flexibility to the developers with regards to density bonus and additive density designations.

  • Public Comment – One speaker requested that when members of the public speak in public comment they are asked to reveal their relationship to the project applicant and on whose behalf that they are speaking.
  • Public Comment – Another speaker asked how the city can move forward with planning the development of the Great Park when the city’s lawsuit against the County of Orange regarding the County’s plan to construct massive high density residential and commercial developments on land adjacent to the Great Park has not yet been resolved. How can the Traffic Studies and Environmental Impact Reports present accurate information without knowing whether or not the County will be allowed to move forward with their development plans?
  • Amendment to Heritage Fields Master Affordable Housing Plan presentation:

Staff report by Sherman Jones:
This is the 4
th amendment of the Heritage Field’s Master Affordable Housing Plan (MAHP).  Heritage Fields plans to designate as retroactive and prospectively additive 1056 affordable non-profit housing units that have already been designated as density bonus units according to California State law. This will allow the construction of 1056 market rate units. The Traffic Study report and the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) which analyzed the impacts of the project on traffic, noise and infrastructure showed no significant impact. Staff recommends approval of Heritage Field’s requested amendment.

  • Public Comment: Commenter complained that the traffic studies cannot possibly represent current and future traffic because many of the Great Park venues are still in the planning process and related traffic circulation plans have not yet gone through the approval process. Commenter stated that the Traffic Commission has discussed I Shuttle, Irvine Circulation only public transportation, and shared vehicle programs for the Great Park out of concern for potential traffic congestion in the area. Commenter also reported that Mayor Wagner in his State of the City Address reported that one of Irvine’s greatest problems is traffic congestion and the lack of accessible parking.  Commenter also expressed concern that granting Retroactive Additive Designation and granting the same units both Additive Designation and Density Bonus designation is precedent setting and could make it difficult for the City to refuse such applications in the future.
  • Public Comment: Commenter stated that Additive units were not in the original Master Affordable Housing Plan for this project.  Commenter said that the applicant is asking for retroactive additive designation in order to be able to build more market rate residential units without having to set aside property for more affordable units.  Commenter requested that the agenda item on Heritage Field’s application be postponed in order to give the city time to update and amend the General Plan before moving forward with making a decision on the matter.
  • Public Comment by Patrick Strader who announced that he was representing the applicant (Heritage Fields/Five Pointe). Mr. Strader showed a video showing what he described as High-Quality affordable units.  Mr. Strader reported that the affordable units would be rented for about $900 per month. He also stated that the market rate units would rent for an average of $2,242 per month.  Mr. Strader announced that the density bonus designation benefits low income housing non-profits because it would classify the units as affordable “in perpetuity “. Mr. Strader went on to report that the affordability term for many currently affordable units in Irvine is about to expire so Irvine really could use more in perpetuity affordable units. According to Mr. Strader, the City of Irvine will have to undergo budget cuts due to a projected budget shortfall.  Mr. Strader reported that Market Rate Units would benefit the Great Park and the city because the Mello Roos taxes for market rate units located in the Great Park would go the Great Park fund, not the city’s general fund.  He explained that Mello Roos taxes for market rate units in other areas of the city go into the city’s general fund. Mr. Strader further reported that the individual construction plans, traffic studies and EIRs will come back to the city staff, city commissions and the City Council for analysis and approval.  

Smith asked the city attorney, Mr. Melching, what effect does the city’s contract with the applicant with regards to the city code and the additive and bonus density designations. Mr. Melching said that the contract with Heritage Fields does not disallow both the density bonus and additive density designations and it does not disallow retroactive additive density designation.  The agreement was entered into in 2010 and the terms of the city code and general plan on the date that the contract was signed are held to apply to the contract.  The contract terms cannot be changed. Thus the applicants request is consistent with the city law at the time the contract was signed.  Mr. Melching said that when traffic studies and EIR reports come to the commissions, the commissioners disagree with report findings that state that the projects have no significant impact on city infrastructure.  

Pierson stated that the city has the obligation to live up to the terms of the contract with Heritage Fields for this Area 51 Great Park Project. He said that future project applications can only be denied or altered if it is found that project plans have a negative environmental or infrastructure impact that requires mitigation.  According to Pierson, the additional 1,056 market rate units will provide a “windfall” income to both the developer and the city via Mello Roos taxes.  

Carroll asked planning staff if approval of this application would be precedent setting.  Staff member, Bill Rodrigues, said that he did not consider this a precedent setting issue.

Nirschl asked what infrastructure was evaluated.  Staff reported that impact on Police and fire services, recreation, schools, traffic, and libraries were evaluated.

Carroll stated that he was concerned about the County’s development plans because the Commissioners need to understand them in order to evaluate applications that they are presented with.  Carroll reported that as the request is consistent with the contract that the city entered into, the city is committed to approving it. Carroll reported that he thinks that the city needs to amend the General Plan, general contract terms and policies in order to disallow Retroactive density designation and to disallow units having both additive and Density Bonus Designation. Carroll asks that the planning commission ask the city council to address this.

Huang said that this is the 2nd time that both density bonus and additive density have been applied for, but the first application was withdrawn. Huan stated that he believes that the city should make a policy that limits how far back after the original contract is signed a developer can request that project residential units be designated as Density Bonus or Additive units. Huan asked Strader if the public was consulted with regards to the plans for the 1,056 market rate units.  Strader stated that the HOAs were notified and that the HOAs were communicating with the applicant. Huan said that he has concerns about the precedent but the city has to live up to the contract provisions.

Nirschl asked staff if the impact reports are based on statistical formulas or upon the design of the residences.  Staff stated that the reports are made my 3rd parties hired by the developer and the staff reviews the reports.  According to staff the city enters into an agreement with the applicant as to what the studies will evaluate. Staff further reported that it is the right of the commission to review the findings of the studies to determine whether or not they agree with the findings of the studies.

Smith said that he is upset with the county plans and that he is very opposed to other entities controlling Irvine’s land and thereby screwing up Irvine’s general plan and master plan. Smith reported that like it or not, the commission’s findings must uphold the terms of the city’s contracts.  It was decided that the commission would move to approve the applicant’s request, and, in a separate motion, move to recommend that the city council review the city contract policy regarding Density Bonus and Additive Density.  

Both motions passed 5-0.

  • So…What is the future role of public comment? How can the public make a difference? What kind of influence can we have?  Discussion with Pierson after the commission meeting was adjourned.

Commissioner Pierson said that public comment is very valuable.  Commissions have the power to recommend changes to city policy, the general plan provisions, and to the general contract provisions. The public can inspire changes that will affect future development projects.  He further reported that commissioners have the power to disagree with the results of impact reports that are presented to their commission and asked that the public continue to speak out about their concerns in order to help the commission guide the city council on changes that need to be made.

He encourages the public to stay involved.