Map of the Moderate Growth plan for the Sand Creek Focus Area General Plan Land Use Update.
Ebbs: “An opportunity for the city to do something remarkable.” Council members advised to not attend community forum. About 2,800 more homes planned.
By Allen Payton
At their meeting on Tuesday, February 14 the Antioch City Council received a report on and discussed the General Plan Land Use Update for the Sand Creek Focus Area, where Antioch’s long-planned and debated new home developments will be located. Mayor Sean Wright concluded that the plan is “90-95% done.” However, Antioch Community Development Director Forrest Ebbs told the council, Nothing is set in stone, tonight.”
He provided the presentation including some history on the planning area, stating, “This has been on the radar for decades… since the 1990’s if not the 80’s.”
“Every five years we are to update the plan and address current conditions,” Ebbs explained. “This is part of the regular maintenance of the General Plan and frankly it’s overdue.”
The update includes the Land Use Element portion for the area in the city’s General Plan. Two projects have already been approved, the Promenade at Sand Creek and the Aviano project, which include about 1,200 new housing units. Those are located north of the actual Sand Creek and the planned Sand Creek Road extension, and east of the Kaiser hospital on Deer Valley Road.
“Each of those projects required multiple amendments to the 2003 General Plan,” Ebbs stated. “Even though they were the right projects at the time, no one was comfortable with the amount of amendments. So, we decided to break off this area for discussion. No other areas have as much controversy.”
“The spirit of the original 2003 General Plan is still evident,” he told the council. “Two very significant principles are that the Sand Creek Area is different – an opportunity for the city to do something remarkable. The natural element. Second is the number, 4,000. That’s a hard number in the 2003 General Plan.”
That figure is down from the 8,900 homes proposed for the area in the late 1990’s and is after the loss of the planned, and voter-approved 640 units that would have been built in the Roddy Ranch project. That land was sold to the East Bay Regional Parks District in 2014.
“Already we’ve approved 1,200 units,” Ebb stated. “We would have run out of units before we ran out of developable land. There are 2,800 units left to allocate. Those are rounded numbers. The policy had been first come, first served and would have allowed one (land owner) to get more units than their share. We needed a system to allocate the remaining units so everyone new how many units they could build.”
They came up with the following calculation: Density x Acreage = Unit Count.
Referring to the projects already approved in the Sand Creek Focus Area, Ebbs said, “Both of those projects have higher densities than we expect to see elsewhere. No more than 50% of the area can be residential in the mixed unit project at Sand Creek and Deer Valley Roads. On the hills we have a reduced density…to keep development off the hills as much as possible.”
“We came up with 3,970 units,” he said. “We were able to come up with this honestly, we didn’t reverse engineer.”
Ebbs then explained the Development Transfer Process which allows one project to transfer their units to another project, if their property is deemed too difficult and it allows them to get their investment back.
He also spoke of the opportunity for senior housing communities in the plan.
“We’re very clear about senior housing,” Ebbs shared. “There’s a density bonus if your project as 30% senior housing you get a 20% density bonus that may be approved. By state law we have a maximum and then allow 20% more. So, if we have more senior housing, we will have more than 4,000 units.”
Ebbs then spoke about the character of the neighborhoods, with high-end housing, executive housing, hillside housing.
“The larger the lot the higher the quality the home, the higher the value of the home,” he said. The reality is the two projects already approved out there, they were the farthest thing from there. The market is going to push us to smaller lots. But we wanted to make sure we don’t have too many small lots.”
Currently the plan following hearings and input by the Antioch Planning Commission has “a minimum lot size of 4,000, and 5,000 and 8,000, depending on the project.”
“But we want a diversity of lots so we have an average lot size of 7,000,” Ebbs explained. “That gives us diversity, so we can have starter homes and we can have the larger, executive homes. Senior housing doesn’t typically have larger lots. So, we’re going to exempt them from that average lot size.”
He also touched on the impacts to the city, which has been a concern of some residents.
“New development will be cost neutral to the city,” Ebbs said. “Private streets and utilities are encouraged.”
He then explained the policy and plans for open space.
“We’ve already designated 36% of the area as open space,” Ebbs stated. “We want to see a comprehensive trail system out there. We do have a specified buffer around Sand Creek of 250 feet wide with the creek in the middle. We only want to see benches and trails. We don’t want to see other junk. We want to see one-sided streets next to the creek.”
He also spoke of how the trails will connect to the nearby Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, and “a possible huge regional park and sports complex.”
Ebbs then explained the proposed policies on hillsides and hilltop development.
“The current General Plan talks about preserving hillsides and hilltops,” he said. “But then it tells you how to grade hilltops and hillsides. So, there’s some confusion, there. What we need is predictability.”
“The top 25% of the hill you get the hilltop and they’re not available for development,” Ebbs stated. “Hillsides are available for development. Using land form grading…so it retains a natural appearance. We also want to see oak trees.”
“No visible structures atop ridgelines or hilltops,” he added.
Ebbs stated that the plan “is not a guarantee of development rights. This is for orderly development out there. Project-specific analysis is required” and that “minor changes will be allowed.”
He then spoke of the proposed housing on the Zeka Ranch, formerly Higgins Ranch property.
“There are unit counts assigned to property west of Empire Mine Road, of 179 units,” Ebbs said. “But those will be a challenge. There are a lot of biologic and geologic issues.”
Overall he was satisfied with the latest plan update, concluding
We have worked it into a much more usable document that the development community
Council Members Have Questions, Offer Input
Following Ebbs presentation, the council members weighed in with their questions and thoughts.
Mayor Wright asked about the opportunity for more input before the plan was taken through the required California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process. “This is direction, today, you will be coming back to us before going to CEQA?”
Ebbs responded, “My intention is to initiate the CEQA process, and then take this to the Planning Commission for a formal hearing.”
Wright then stated, “I didn’t see this as immediately going to CEQA after we’re done. I would like to see this come back to us in two to four weeks before going to CEQA.”
Mayor Pro Tem Lamar Thorpe agreed with Wright
“I share the same thoughts and perspective that the mayor has,” he said. “There’s a community forum I’d like to participate in. I’ve got a lot of emails and phone calls from folks expressing their concerns.” Thorpe was referring to a meeting about the Sand Creek Focus Area, sponsored by Save Mt. Diablo and planned for tonight, Thursday night, Feb. 23.
Councilman Tony Tiscareno asked if there “were there any discrepancies between the developers” and the proposed plan update.
“I have one application in for preliminary review. There’s one area of discrepancy,” Ebbs responded. “We’ve talked about senior housing. Sometimes there’s typical detached and attached. Then there’s assisted living. It’s not quite housing. I see it as more of a commercial use.
I wouldn’t see assisted living out here take away from unit count. Convalescent homes are more what we should call them. They’re more like a hospital. We don’t preclude those…but we also don’t speak to them.”
Tiscareno then asked about open space.
“The old plan called for a golf course,” Ebbs explained. “It didn’t give an acreage for that. We don’t have a golf course in this but we’re at 36% open space. These are undeveloped parks, undeveloped open space.”
“It also calls for a trail system and an open space management plan, that will be fire safe,” he continued. “Not just a water tower and weeds.”
Then members of the public as well as landowners and development representatives offered their input to the council.
Planning Commissioner Martha Parsons asked for changes to policies affecting the Olive Grove senior housing project, specifically the 125-foot set back from Sand Creek.
Former Antioch City Manager Mike Ramsey, who is a consultant for the Olive Grove senior housing project, spoke next.
“We also would appreciate this administrative draft not sent forward tonight, but to allow us to meet with staff that have come to our attention,” he said. “The first area of the land use designations that concerns us…senior housing has long been encouraged. It’s not a small percentage it’s 100% and we’re trying to do it in such a way as to make them affordable.”
“We see assisted living as a very good addition,” Ramsey continued. “So we’d like to see that added without taking units away.”
He then spoke about his concerns with the requirement for the 125-foot set back from the creek.
“Some of the areas we’re planning to develop will encroach,” he stated and then suggested “an averaging…that would be sensitive to the terrain…without losing unit count which is so important for financing.”
Dr. Alan Iannacone, the son-in-law of the landowners of the proposed Olive Grove project, spoke in favor of the senior housing.
“We’ve already seen the successful Trilogy and Somerset in Brentwood,” he shared. “It has a mimimum impact on schools and Highway 4 and the proximity to medical care.”
Lucia Albers, the landowner of the Olive Grove, then spoke about the impact on the project of the changes in the General Plan.
“If implemented it would make it economically impossible to build,” she stated. “We hired the same engineers and architects that worked on Trilogy. I had a dream to do something similar in Sand Creek.”
She also spoke about the 125 foot set back.
“The road connecting the project to Sand Creek Road has been designated for this project since the 1990’s,” Albers explained. “The hilltop policy should be retained. The change eliminates rows of housing in the Olive Grove project.”
Her husband Monte Albers spoke briefly, also in favor of the Olive Grove senior housing project.
Planning Commission Chairman Kerry Motts spoke next, saying “I felt like some of the comments from the staff report have been lacking. A lot of work has gone into this. From the beginning I’ve felt we should have approached this with a more formal manner. Because we put the cart a little bit in front of the horse so we’ve had to work a little backwards.”
He then suggested forming an ad hoc committee of two council members and other working group members.
“I would urge council to look at whatever it could, a formal or informal process,” Motts continued. “This is essentially the build out of Antioch. The main thing is we get input from the public.”
Former Antioch Mayoral candidate Gil Murillo, who has been an outspoken critic of The Ranch project, the largest one in the Sand Creek shared his thoughts, mentioning the community meeting.
“I want to be quick because I’m in the dog house to be honest,” he began. “In the last session we only got 30 respondents. So, I’m glad to see Save Mt. Diablo is doing another…event. Fixing things in the city should be first. The City of Concord with a city similar in size to Antioch has 150 sworn officers. Antioch needs living wage jobs.”
“I was told Antioch is no Bishop Ranch,” Murillo continued. “I want to remind people Bishop Ranch started with one company and that was 20 years ago and look at where they are today. This land is slated as business park. Tech and business services. We need a police substation in the south area.”
Joe Davenport said “you have a great opportunity to shape the future of Antioch. There is a palpable sense that they’ve been disenfranchised and folks are generally angry. So, there’s a lot of unresolved public comment. The massive scale of the Bay Area’s largest development. This could create as many as 40,000 car trips per day. A loss of the hills.”
“Invest in at least one more community forum, a workshop in southeast Antioch,” he requested.
Resident Sherry Starks spoke about her desire for better schools in Antioch before more housing.
“I was here 14 years ago and I opposed the development,” she stated. “I don’t see where the school property is. I have the original 2003 General Plan and I did read through it. We haven’t disappeared, the people who opposed it. My daughter attended school in a trailer, you call them portables. You know what, there’s more trailers. The infrastructure doesn’t exist. It doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked for Antioch. It’s just a system of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. How many trailers.”
“Antioch is the armpit of the Bay Area,” Starks added, then asked, “You have all these trailers but what are you going to do to fix the problem?”
Aaron Ross-Swain of Richland Communities was the final speaker, sharing about his company’s project and their support for the latest plan update.
“We are a large property owner in the area, we are the applicant on the Ranch project,” he shared. “A look back in time, this area one point in time Antioch voters voted on the Urban Limit Line to bring this into the city. This envisioned jobs, homes. Very little has been done. Two housing projects have been approved. Kaiser has been constructed.”
“I think it’s a good land use,” Ross-Swain continued. “It really dovetails what we want to do on our property. It implements predictability. The high points and the merits of this plan revolve around the land use designation, executive and senior housing. It implements minimum lot sizes which preserves the integrity of this planning area and it preserves the natural open space for this planning area.”
Council Input To Staff
The council members then took up the matter for final input to staff.
Council Member Lori Ogorchock wanted workshops before making a final decision.
“In reading this I have to say it’s kind of confusing,” she said. “I’d like to see workshops to take the old plan and the new plan. It goes back to May of 1996 the Lone Tree Specific Plan. It talked about 6,800 jobs and 288 acres devoted to commercial development. We did this for the Downtown Specific Plan.”
“Senior housing is less calls for service, fewer cars on the roads. Less impact on the schools,” Ogorchock continued.
“Some of the homes will go to Brentwood some will go to Antioch. Most of these will go to Antioch schools,” Ebbs explained.
“Does Gordon Gravelle’s land count toward the open space?” Ogorchock asked, referring to land his company Suncrest Homes owned near Somersville Road and James Donlon Blvd., which he had planned for 50 homes, but recently donated to the parks district.
Ebbs responded, “It’s not in this focus area.”
Thorpe asked about how many meetings have been held on the plan, then said “we really haven’t had the opportunity to engage the community outside of Planning Commission meetings.”
He then asked about unit count.
“Let’s say we decide to move forward and go through CEQA. Let’s just say hypothetically it did impact unit count,” Thorpe said.
Ebbs responded, “the Olive Grove project isn’t on the agenda, tonight. This will change expectations.”
But, Thorpe pressed the issue wanting to know what happens “to those remaining units.”
“No one has a unit count, today,” Ebbs responded.
“If we did (approved) this?” Thorpe asked.
“We would have a unit count,” Ebbs stated. “Units could be transferred from one project to another.”
Council Member Monica Wilson then asked about elements of the plan and public services.
“The red areas you have designated as commercial. People have asked about fire, about public works facility. Have we identified locations” for them?
Ebbs responded, “That’s a really good point. We have identified a fire station because the developer has included it in their plans. We haven’t identified a specific spot for a future public works facility because that is someone’s property.”
Tiscareno then asked about all of the council members attending the community forum on Feb 23.
City Attorney Michael Vigilia responded, “I would advise against all of you attending so you would avoid the possibility of a Brown Act violation. I would strongly encourage you to not participate in the discussion.”
Mayor Wright then wrapped up the discussion, stating, “As far as I’m concerned it’s 90, 95% done. But you want council direction.”
“Probably more like four weeks,” Ebbs said in providing a time frame for staff to return with a final plan for a council vote.
Thorpe then said “I would like to know more about the challenges with development around Zeka Ranch.”
“If you have questions about specific projects that should be agendized specifically,” Vigilia stated.
Thorpe responded, “help me with understanding the environmental considerations and why we’re still considering possible development and what are the legal ramifications around that.”
Wilson asked for information on different types of senior housing.
Wright asked about “the hilltop 25% issue.”
“Overall, is there some flexibility on that?” he asked.
“Nothing in the General Plan should be in concrete,” Ebbs responded. “This is the 10,000-foot level. All the conflicts we run into they’re all minor, so we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.”
The council then went on to other matters on the night’s agenda.