ORANGE, Calif.—Real estate management company Milan Capital bought 110 acres in Orange, California, banking on being able to turn what is currently a giant gravel pit into a housing development.
Milan’s desire to develop has met with the cold shoulder, despite promises to dedicate 70 acres to open space for public use.
The contentious project has been debated by the city and its residents for years, and after Nov. 3 it seems voters finally killed it. Ballot Measure AA, which would allow the development, had 63.3 percent of the votes against it and 36.7 for it, as of Nov. 9. Though the results are not final, its fate seems clear.
But the fate of the land in question, along Santiago Canyon Road, isn’t so clear. The gravel pit has been a bane to local residents whose air quality has been impacted for years.
Chris Nichelson, president of Milan Capital, told The Epoch Times he’s “a little upset” voters rejected his plans for the land and that the gravel-mining operation will “continue forever.”
“The city lost big,” Nichelson said. “We got the message loud and clear.
“I hope the neighbors like trucks. It’s gonna be busier. The site is permanently a sand and gravel site. We’re gonna do what we’re allowed to do on that site to make whatever money we can.”
Orange residents still hope to get rid of the gravel pit, though it’s unclear how.
Orange Mayor Pro Tem Mike Alvarez, who supported Measure AA, told The Epoch Times: “[We’re] pretty much back to square one. I think everybody [on] both sides of AA agree that the rock quarry has got to go. … How do we get there? [This] is the challenge now.”
Objections to the Milan housing development centered on its potential impact to the city’s character.
“We’re trying to keep our city in a way that [preserves] the charm of our city. People’s homes are their largest investment, generally. And people love their neighborhoods,” Theresa Sears, an opponent of the measure, told The Epoch Times. She’s a part of Keep Orange Safe, a campaign against AA.
The group argued the area is at risk for flooding and other hazards and would be a poor site for homes, that it would increase traffic in the area, and that opening the door too wide to developers could endanger the country feel.
“We went to every door in Orange, every door we could get to,” Sears said. “People were very receptive to us.”
In the months leading up to the election, Sears estimated they put some 60,000 door hangers on homes across the city.
She said the measure’s demise was “very significant.”
“It tells you where our city is. This is not just about the site, this is about a lot of other areas in Orange,” she said.
“I wouldn’t want to be Milan.”
Adrienne Gladson, a 2020 mayoral candidate expressed a similar thought: “I don’t see a good outcome in this for Milan. I really don’t.”
Gladson, who served as an Orange planning commissioner from 2011 to 2017, said one of the main reasons she ran for mayor was to highlight this issue. Although she lost to incumbent Mark Murphy, she said the defeat of AA was a “silver lining.”
“To Milan, it should send a clear message,” Gladson said. “You’ve taken us on three times and you’ve been unsuccessful. So stop.”
A similar referendum was held in 2012 for Ridgeline, a property adjacent to the current property in question. Milan had similarly bought that parcel of land, hoping to develop it. It now lies vacant.
Milan had promised it as a gift to residents if they passed Measure AA, an additional 50 acres of open space.
Developing Ridgeline required an amendment to the city’s general plan (a similar amendment was needed for the current project, which is what Measure AA would have accomplished). Voters shot down the Ridgeline proposal, but city officials used their discretionary power to move the project forward anyway—until the state Supreme Court ruled they had to listen to the voters on the matter.
The Gravel Remains
Though Nichelson vows to keep the gravel pit going full-steam to recover money on his failed investment, City Councilmember Arianna Barrios doesn’t think he’ll be able to.
“I would say that he is just one hundred percent incorrect in that,” she told The Epoch Times. “The county now has said they need to cease and desist.”
On Aug. 3, the Orange County Local Enforcement Agency (LEA) issued an immediate cease and desist order to Milan and Chandler/Rio Santiago, the operator of the site. While Rio Santiago challenged the validity of the order, a Nov. 4 court decision upheld the order.
According to Nichelson, the gravel site is “currently not operating.” However, he added, “we don’t think that we have to keep it shut. I think we could open tomorrow.”
While he confirmed that the order was upheld, he said that it applies to a permit that was issued to them “in error” and they returned it willingly.
Barrios said Milan should clean up the site. “My guess is it’s going to be a very expensive cleanup. And the city should not pay one dime for that. Milan should clean up their own mess.”
Mayor Pro Tem Alvarez said of Nichelson: “I don’t think he’s going to pick up his toys and walk away from it. He’s invested too much. Even in the election, he invested a lot of money, so I would think he’s going to try to recover it somehow.”
To get rid of the gravel operation, he said one solution could be for Milan to sell the property to the county or the city, although he admitted the city “doesn’t have the money to buy it.”
“OPA [Orange Park Association] has fought with that guy for so long that we really need to get him out of the picture to have any chance to do something with that property,” Alvarez said.
Gladson said, “I just don’t know a single reputable residential developer out there that would buy any of this land from Milan.”
Opponents to the project have long maintained that the land isn’t safe for residential housing: it’s vulnerable to floods and wildfires, there’s a risk of methane toxicity, and local road infrastructure can’t support more housing. Milan Capital disputes these claims, citing its Environmental Impact Report (EIR), though that report is currently being challenged in court by OPA.
‘I Just Wanted Peace and Quiet Near My Home’
The defeat of AA was especially crushing to Orange resident Mark Moore.
For nearly 25 years, he has lived next to the gravel operation. When he bought his home in 1996, the quarry was inactive. But within a few years, the site reopened and the operation has been going ever since.
“I just wanted peace and quiet near my home and clean air,” Moore, 63, told The Epoch Times. “Now, I’m going to be stuck with this gravel pit for another five to 10 years at least.”
He said the results shook his belief in the referendum process.
“Like, did anybody even read anything on this project?” he said. “Did anybody even look at the facts and the numbers and the benefits being offered to the people? Guess not,” he said.
“I still believe that three years from now, the people in Orange Park Acres are going to look back and say, that wasn’t such a bad deal after all.”
Moore said he will urge city council to come up with a compromise proposal to replace the gravel pit—a plan “that doesn’t abuse the landowner’s rights … something that allows them to not lose so much money on this deal.”