The south Orange County city of Lake Forest is poised to approve a plan that would not only permit 5,400 housing units, but would help tie together what are now two distinct parts of town. The plan could also give the city a large sports park, a new city hall and a true town center.
All of this is possible because of a project that did not go forward — a civilian airport at the now-closed El Toro Marine Corps base, which lies just west of Lake Forest. The properties in question all lie under the old El Toro flight path and would have been under an even busier flight path had the base become an airport. Orange County voters, however, vetoed the airport, and the base is now being redeveloped with thousands of housing units and a large park.
Existing zoning of the vacant Lake Forest property calls for 9.8 million square feet of industrial and commercial development because industrial uses were considered compatible with the airport noise. The proposed plan rezones most property for residential or retail uses.
“It could lend itself well to residential development,” said Gene Spindler, vice president of Shea Properties, which is working with Baker Ranch Properties, owner of 380 acres in the plan area. “The dilemma was that it was under the flight path for El Toro and for OTX [the proposed airport] if it had ever occurred. The only reason it was ever designated commercial was because of the flight path.”
Indeed, the flight path — and a corresponding noise corridor — carved a swath through Lake Forest on either side of the Foothills Transportation Corridor toll road. The area has been quiet since 1999, when the Marine Corps closed the base, but the properties remained designated for industry while the battle over the 4,000-acre military base was waged. When voters formally killed the El Toro airport with passage of Measure W in March 2002 (see CP&DR, March 2006, April 2002), owners of land underneath the flight path began approaching Lake Forest officials with notions of residential development.
The city inherited the industrial and commercial zoning designations from the county when voters in 1991 approved incorporation of the community that had been known as El Toro. (Lake Forest is the name of a large development in the town.) The city has no desire to maintain the industrial and commercial designations because the city already has extensive industrial development, noted Cheryl Kuta, Lake Forest senior planner, and because Lake Forest is adjacent to the gigantic Irvine Spectrum, which offers miles of business parks.
The city decided that a comprehensive planning effort was in order, and it invited the owners of all 13 parcels under the flight path to participate. Six owners with 838 acres agreed to work with the city, and their noncontiguous parcels became the subject of the city’s “opportunities study.” About three years ago, the landowners submitted concept plans for a total of 6,600 housing units. The city used those plans as something of a starting point.
“This is the rest of the city. Everything else is built out,” explained Kuta. “We wanted to make sure we looked at this comprehensively.”
After more than two years of planning, workshops and environmental review, the city earlier this year unveiled the preferred plan. In addition to 5,415 housing units, the plan calls for a 45-acre sports park and city hall/civic center complex, about 150 acres of open space and neighborhood parks, and 650,000 square feet of retail space.
What is crucial for the city, said Kuta, is the public benefits component, especially the sport park and civic buildings. The city of 78,000 people now has only one significant sport facility, and city hall is in leased office space.
“We really saw this as our opportunity to tie the city together with more like uses, and to provide the community gathering place that our general plan has called for,” Kuta said.
Under the plan, developers are required to sign a development agreement committing them to providing the sports park and civic facilities. Developers are also expected to sign a mitigation agreement with the local school district to upgrade existing classrooms and provide for new ones, and to provide extensive road improvements, including the long-sought completion of Alton Parkway.
“The city has placed a very aggressive public benefits package as part of the plan,” said Shea Properties’ Spindler. “When you put all of those things together, it’s a very expensive package. One of the things we’re wrestling with is how you finance all of that.”
Public input thus far has been mostly positive, although some residents have expressed concerns about traffic congestion, increased runoff and the impact on schools.
Kuta said that the school issues “really are not part of this project,” although Spindler and representatives of the Irvine Ranch Water District, which owns 82 acres it seeks to develop, understand that cutting a deal with the Saddleback Valley Unified School District is expected. The city has a detailed traffic mitigation plan that should solve any potential congestion, Kuta said. Spindler agreed, noting that infrastructure in the area was planned to serve industrial development, which generates more traffic than homes. A city study estimated that the proposed development would generate about 47% as much traffic as the earlier planned industrial development, although peak commute traffic levels would be about the same.
Noting the planned completion of Alton Parkway through the Baker Ranch property, Spindler said, “I think traffic in Lake Forest will be better than it has been in years.”
The city also expects to benefit from a wide variety of new housing units. Shea, whose 380 acres is the largest piece in the opportunities study area, has been allocated 2,815 units under the proposed plan. Spindler said those units would come in the form of a wide variety of attached and detached units, apartments and even some mixed-use buildings. This will be a large community, and Shea wants to appeal to a broad range of the market, he said.
The Irvine Ranch Water District is working with development giant Lewis on plans for the district’s land, which it inherited when it consolidated with another district several years ago. The city’s plan allocates 833 residential units to the water district’s property.
Development of the property will provide money for the district’s replacement fund, which pays for wastewater and water lines, said Terry Loomis, the district’s treasurer.
“We’re happy with the process,” Loomis said. “The city has tried to be careful as it has gone through it. It’s a difficult process, especially when you’re dealing with six landowners.”
Spindler characterized the process as “long,” and expressed a bit of frustration because the housing market has tempered greatly since late 2005.
The environmental impact report for the opportunities study is scheduled to go to the Lake Forest Planning Commission this month. The City Council should begin considering the entire package — general plan amendment, zoning change, traffic mitigation ordinance, development agreement and EIR — in August or September. Once all of those items are adopted, the city expects the larger landowners to return with more detailed plans, including tract maps, which will likely require subsequent environmental review, Kuta said.
Actual development in the opportunities study area could commence as early as next year.
Cheryl Kuta, City of Lake Forest, (949) 461-3479.
Terry Loomis, Irvine Ranch Water District, (949) 453-5340.
Gene Spindler, Shea Properties, (949) 389-7116.
Opportunities study website: www.ci.lake-forest.ca.us/opportunitiesstudy/