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Lillian Boyd, Dana Point Times

Toll Brothers, a housing construction company, has the green light to study the environmental impacts of a proposed apartment complex on Victoria Boulevard in Capistrano Beach, at its own expense. But city officials are emphasizing there is still a long road ahead for the development.

Toll Brothers applied for Dana Point City Council approval to pursue an environmental impact report (EIR) in July, but the request was voted down. At the time, councilmembers expressed concern with the need for public outreach and inconsistencies with the city’s General Plan. While the same issues resurfaced at the Tuesday, Feb. 2 council meeting, the action items narrowly passed.

“It’s important to note that the approval of this initiation request does not predispose the city council to favor the proposed amendments,” said Belinda Deines, a city senior planner. “The initiation allows for further analysis of the proposed amendment to be conducted. The planning commission and the city council will have full discretion to review and vote on the proposed project at noticed public hearings.”

The proposed project would be built on the bus yard property owned by Capistrano Unified School District (CUSD). In 2017, the CUSD Board of Trustees moved forward with plans to lease the 5.51 acres of property. Since then, CUSD has worked toward obtaining the required permits needed to remove containerized hazardous material from the bus site and has entered into an agreement with Toll Brothers Apartment Living to develop the site for apartments.

The Capistrano Unified School District owns the South Bus Yard property in Capistrano Beach on Victoria Boulevard. Photo: Allison Jarrell

Major differences in the second proposal include fewer units, height reduction, the addition of affordable housing and open space.

Unit count decreased from 401 to 365, with 15% affordable units proposed and with 1.1 acres dedicated to recreation and open space. Based on current zoning rules, there would be a maximum allowance for 224 units, including a percentage of affordable housing.

Building height would be limited to 50 feet along Victoria Boulevard, and 65 feet beyond, along La Playa Avenue, along the off-ramp from Interstate 5. The additional 10 feet for rooftop equipment and 10 feet for recreational amenities drew concerns during public comments. But city officials emphasized that approval of the action items was not an approval of the project.

Toll Brothers is in the early stages of pursuing an apartment complex development on Capistrano Unified School District’s bus yard, located on Victoria Boulevard in Capistrano Beach. Graphic: City of Dana Point

“We are talking about an EIR … and we get to hire our own consultant,” City Councilmember Michael Villar said. “We’ve got to keep our eyes on the ball that’s in front of us right now. The data that I need to make a decision (on the project) is going to come from the EIR.”

Michael Baker International, the consultant currently finalizing the EIR for the Doheny Village plan, would handle the study. The proposed project lies within District 5 of Dana Point, the portion of the city in which Villar represents.

“We are not approving the project itself. The issue that is in front of us is the EIR, itself … I’m in no way saying I approve the project as written,” Villar said. “My focus is on the EIR to move forward, so I can get the data to make a decision.”

Mayor Pro Tem Joe Muller, however, emphasized how vocal local residents have been as far as development, in explaining his dismay with staff recommendations.

“We need to figure out what our community wants down there, what the right zoning is,” Muller said. “These are conversations that should have happened already with the community … opening up this EIR is letting the horse out of the barn.”

According to Deines’s staff report, the applicant had conducted outreach through the Doheny Village Working Group, as well as in-person and virtual one-on-one and small-group discussions with adjacent neighbors, property owners and interested parties. However, Jim Schad, a Doheny Village resident and member of the Doheny Village Merchants’ Association, challenged that notion during public comments.

“Last Thursday, we heard from the applicant at the tail-end of a Zoom meeting. It lasted about five minutes … no drawings, no discussion of density,” Schad said. “Their main focus was on a stepped back or tiered concept for the design. While I appreciate their thinking of different approaches, I was dismayed when I saw the agenda report.”

Schad stated that in 2018, CUSD pursued high-density residential projects without consulting the city or the Merchants’ Group, which “violates the theme of the Working Group.”

“It doesn’t fit into the Doheny Village zoning update and the public outreach (council) asked for has been minimal at best,” Schad said.

CUSD’s Role in Revitalization

For several years, CUSD has pursued the sale or lease of vacant properties owned by the district in an effort to upgrade and enhance its school facilities. However, city officials have made note of CUSD’s lack of participation with other stakeholders in Doheny Village as efforts are underway to update its plan.

“The Doheny Village rezone effort has taken some time, and it was clearly something the city and residents wanted to ensure they got right,” said Michael McCann, regional director for Toll Brothers Apartment Living. “Perhaps the school district felt that in accelerating the timeline, they could help the rezone, and generate enthusiasm.”

According to the school district, the bus yard lease agreement with Toll Brothers will provide millions of dollars in direct funding for school projects, with the first priority of expenditures going to Dana Point school improvements.

“For example, Dana Hills High School (which is one of the district’s oldest schools) would benefit greatly from such lease proceeds,” said Ryan Burris, CUSD’s chief communications officer, in an email. “It is our expectation that Toll Bros., Inc., like any developer, would work directly with the City to identify development projects that fit within the scope and vision of residents, business owners, and elected leaders. We are grateful for the vote by the City Council that allows Toll Bros., Inc. to move forward with an EIR.”

Council Grants Approval 

In a 3-2 vote, city council approved the recommended action to adopt a resolution to initiate a General Plan Amendment and Specific Plan District for the Victoria Boulevard Apartments and to authorize for the city to execute an agreement on an environmental impact report, costing up to $207,000, which will be billed to Toll Brothers. Councilmembers Villar, Mike Frost and Jamey Federico approved the action, items while Muller and Richard Viczorek voted against it.

“Once you let this horse out of the barn, there are a lot of expectations,” said Federico, Dana Point’s mayor. “That risk is real in trying to get that horse back in. We will have to have the discipline to shoot that horse, if necessary.”

McCann tells Dana Point Times he hears council’s remarks loudly and clearly.

“Our plan is to follow their direction to engage with the community,” McCann said. “We have in the past, and we will continue to do so, but to bear in mind, our project needs to provide meaningful contribution to the city, particularly residents.”

McCann says Toll Brothers will actively revise plans based on recent feedback and that he looks forward to discussing those revisions with staff, council and Doheny Village stakeholders.

Following initiation, the project will be subject to environmental review which is anticipated to be completed by this fall. Throughout the project’s process, Deines says there will be plenty of opportunity for public review and input.

“It needs to be clear that this is just the beginning of the project,” Deines said. “Additional changes are warranted based on direction given by council … the applicant is aware of that.”

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