Citizens are showing signs of serious concern after a top Orange County planning official revealed the county has planned for 500-600 residences near the corner of Katella and Los Al Boulevard in its housing element, bringing the total to approximately 7,000 housing units planned for within the small space of Cypress, Seal Beach, Rossmoor and Los Alamitos.
Justin Kirk, who heads the county’s planning unit for unincorporated areas, appeared before the Rossmoor Community Services District Tuesday to discuss the county’s housing element, revealing to residents many aspects of the county’s strategy in processing the various housing elements before submittal to the state.
The state of California, he said, requires every city and county to adopt a housing element as part of its general plan, which must be updated every eight years. The housing element is intended to ensure that each jurisdiction plans for and accommodates its share of the regional housing needs identified in the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) process, which is overseen by the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD).
The RHNA process assigns each jurisdiction a target number of housing units to be built at various income levels (very low, low, moderate, and above moderate) over an eight-year period. The targets are based on population growth projections, household size, and economic and demographic factors.
Kirk said the RHNA process has been around since 1969, though he said housing numbers really jumped since 2020 when certain policy modifications were made.
“We have to plan for housing units in a reasonable and accommodating manner. It is the responsibility of the private sector or developers to actually fulfill those needs. So a lot of what we plan is mathematically oriented based upon what is identified by the state as our responsibility within the unincorporated areas,” he said.
“Now we get housing numbers through a number of different economic categories, ranging from moderate-income, affordable, or low-income, extremely low-income,” he added.
More than once, however, Kirk stressed to the RCSD Board and a group of residents that the RHNA process is “a planning goal, not a building quota.” While the state is currently in the 6th eight-year planning cycle, OC County has yet to fully build out the numbers called for back in Planning cycle 4, again stressing to residents that a housing element is a planning document only.
“A lot of these goals, policies, and programs are restatements of state law that have already been passed and have been incurred as municipalities have had to implement,” said Kirk. “This process of our housing element does require that it becomes a challenge because a policy at a local level may not align at a state level.”
In what one of the residents characterized as a presentation “better than a college professor,” Kirk explained how the RHNA numbers are received by the county and then processed through the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) and how they eventually matriculate up to the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development. Although residents did not like much of what Kirk had to say, the entire debate was very respectful and devoid of emotion witnessed by some housing element debates.
RCSD President Tony DeMarco, who asked General Manager Joe Mendoza to arrange for Kirk to appear at the meeting, asked Kirk about plans listed in the OC Housing Element to potentially transform a huge parcel of land near the intersection of Katella Ave. and Los Alamitos Boulevard into housing units.
Indeed, Kirk confirmed that the parcel(s) which now houses the Fish Company and other popular businesses near the intersection of Katella Ave. and Los Al Boulevard has been identified in the OC Housing Element as suitable for housing.
“What is the total number of units planned,” Demarco wanted to know.
“I don’t know off the top of my head,” answered Kirk.
“Is it like 200, 400, 600,” responded Demarco?
“I want to say it is between 500-600,” said Kirk, who explained how old standards have been made new again that allow developers to build 70 units per acre.
He said the OC Housing Element calls for 10,600 new housing units in the county major unincorporated areas.
Local activist Dan Brandt asked Kirk if any of those Rossmoor parcels identified as suitable for housing in the OC Housing Element could be split up.
For instance, The Fish Company stays but other landowners decide housing is more profitable. “That’s another thing residents need to be concerned about,” he said.
It is absolutely possible for some parcels to be developed into housing and others not, said Kirk, noting however that all county housing criteria would determine what type of units could be built.
Rossmoor resident Rod Crane told Kirk that traffic is already a “disaster,” so he asked Kirk about parking requirements.
“You seem to be concentrating strictly on an unincorporated area,” Crane told Kirk. “We are impacted by the city of Los Alamitos, the cities of Cypress and Seal Beach, so when I go through the [housing element] totals, I see about 3000 units that‘s being dumped onto Katella Ave. and Los Alamitos Boulevard.”
“Directly across the street from your proposal, at the intersection of Los Al Blvd. and Katella, the city of Los Alamitos is parking 227 units, another 80 units just there at Wahoo’s, the city of Seal Beach is parking 400 units behind Sprouts, I believe it is and across the street at Target, there are another 200 units with the totaled a little over 3000 units (excluding Cypress) in this immediate area,” said Crane.
“I don’t see how this possibly works,” he said, before asking Kirk about the requirement for parking.
Actually, the number of housing units, according to the draft housing elements in the respective cities makes the total number more like 7,000.
Seal Beach is planning for 1,243 units, Los Alamitos 769 units, Rossmoor now 600, and there is a private development proposed for Old Ranch Country Club in Seal Beach that adds residences and a hotel.
According to the draft housing element in Cypress, that city’s housing element includes approximately 3,800 units.
The various housing plans further break those down into various categories and are meant to project housing unit demand for the next eight years.
Kirk said new state guidelines indicate that if there is a transportation hub (i.e., bus stop) near the development, parking requirements will be minimal, especially on affordable housing units.
“Our typical parking requirements are for a two-bedroom unit and higher is two parking spaces one covered one uncovered plus one additional 1.3 spaces. It goes down to one covered space and one open space for single units or studios,” said Kirk.
“With that all being said, the state of California has identified that, if you’re within a half mile of a transit station that provides regular service in half an hour to 15-minute intervals, your local jurisdiction cannot implement minimum parking requirements on affordable housing developments,” said Kirk.
The OC planning official said he understood neighborhood concerns, but cautioned against overreaction, suggesting all of this was simply planning to meet state planning goals.
Another concern, said Kirk, is what’s called a “builder’s remedy.” Los Alamitos expressed concern about the practice urging quick adoption of the housing element at their last meeting.
Apparently, without an approved housing element, builders can somehow get projects developed with the necessary project approvals.
“I know the hot topic is now the builders remedy. The builders remedy has been on the books since the mid ’60s,” said Kirk. “So it’s not a new law,” but “we’re seeing that strip away some of the limitations of what the builders remedy allows for municipalities to review a project.”
One resident, Helen Knisley, said the latest estimate had more than 700,000 residents leaving California so why the spiraling housing numbers?
Again, Kirk attempted to emphasize the housing element is merely a planning document mandated by the state.
At this point, he said, it is simply impossible to answer any specific questions because the projects anticipated within the OC housing element are only conceptual at this point.
Kevin Pearce, representing Protect Our Communities, a newly formed activist group of citizens from Los Alamitos, Rossmoor and Seal Beach, who are actively lobbying for density changes in the Lampson Project.
They also attended the hearing on the Old Ranch scoping meeting last week, he said.
Pearce asked Kirk about housing element exemptions. He said it appears as though Marin County had received a temporary exemption from participating in the housing element process.
Kirk said he knew of no such exemptions but would follow up.
For nearly two hours, Kirk patiently responded to every question posed to him by the RCSD Board, residents and questions emailed or received online.
Kirk encouraged citizen push back to change the trajectory of housing policy in the state, saying the county Board of Supervisors is currently “trying to work through some of the issues.”
“It becomes a challenge because policies at the local level may not align with policies at the state level,” said Kirk.
“The state is asking for policies and programs that the elected officials on the Board of Supervisors are not supportive of,” he said.
“We have not been able to achieve that goal,” he said.
“I think we all have a right to be very, very concerned. Angry,” said Director Jeff Barke. “We don’t need more excuses to leave California, but here’s another one that’s coming on board,” he said.
Barke invoked an old Soviet-style term to describe what he thought was going on at the state level as he urged open defiance to residents.
“This is nothing more than central Politburo planning from Sacramento. It’s not mandatory compliance, let’s be clear,” said Barke.
“There is a reason the state of California is suing Huntington Beach because they have had the courage to raise their middle finger saying we are not going to comply. The OC Board of Supervisors should be organizing the unincorporated areas in Orange County to push back against state government,” he said.
Kirk advised residents on how he thought it would be most effective to fight back.
What works best is “just the facts,”he said, and objectively asserting the position on which a project fails. Amplify on those points at every inflection point through the process.
“Don’t speak with emotion, because that will drown out the actual basis of your statement,” he said, sacrificing its validity in the process.
Editor’s Note: For residents seeking to learn more about housing elements, locally and in Orange County, Kirk’s entire presentation is available to watch at www.rossmoor-csd.org:8443.