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Commission approves fifth extension for Colby Circle townhomes

A controversial housing development proposed for Colby Circle was narrowly granted a two-year extension last week.

The architectural commission voted 4-3 on July 24 to move forward with the extension, after initially continuing the decision on April 26.

The decision keeps the architectural approvals in place for the 96-unit condominium development, which is seen as the last piece of the Old School House revitalization project. This was the fifth such extension granted since it was initially approved in 2007.

The development has come under fire from nearby residents of the Griswold townhomes to the north and Oxford Avenue in the west. Some residents, most of whom were at last Wednesday’s meeting, have argued that the development is too dense, and have called for a new environmental impact report (EIR).

Currently, the project has a mitigated negative declaration (MND), a document similar to but less thorough than an EIR that was made when the project was approved.

At the meeting, City Attorney Alisha Patterson told the commission that CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) documents like an EIR or an MND are usually not re-opened unless one of three findings can be made—if there are substantial changes to the project itself or to the circumstances surrounding the project or if new information came to light that could not have been known when the MND was created.

“I would stress that they are fairly high bars,” Ms. Patterson said.

The commission’s task was to determine if the owner, in this case Intracorp Homes, could have avoided a delay in construction. Intracorp is a new player in the fray—they are in the middle of purchasing the Colby Circle property from Claremont Star LP.

The city cited multiple factors that caused the delay, including the economic recession that began more than a decade ago. Another factor is procedural—construction on Colby Circle cannot start until a 280-space parking garage is built at the site of the former Claremont Inn.

If the commission let the architectural approvals lapse, it would only have affected superficial elements of the project. The density of the project—including the number of units—has already been set, the city has said.

Harry Wu of Claremont Star LP told the commission that it has been a long process to get the Old School House Specific Plan done, including renovating the DoubleTree Hotel and the Old School House, bringing in Trader Joe’s and revising plans for the 30-unit condo building that will be built adjacent to the parking garage.

“Since 2007, we haven’t rested,” Mr. Wu said, adding later that construction of the parking structure would be completed within a year.

Rick Puffer of Intracorp told the commission that the developer had submitted design changes based on feedback from the Griswold townhome residents, and claimed a letter of support from their HOA. He noted that construction of model homes could start in March 2020.

Nearly a dozen people spoke during public comment, voicing their concerns about the project. The most pointed comments came not from Griswold residents but from those who live west of the proposed condo site.

The Law family’s Oxford Avenue home directly borders the project area, and Marla Law Abrolat told the commission that none of the concerns from her family or neighbors have been considered.

“No one ever acknowledged the fact that these properties would have a front door to our backyards,” Ms. Abrolat said.

Marcia Law LaPierre noted that the plans for Colby Circle were prematurely submitted, and of the 54 homeowners at Griswold in 2007, 38 of them have changed over the years. She brought out a piece of rope to demonstrate how far the new development would be from the family home—nine feet, seven inches.

“They will be looking into our pool,” she said. “Throwing stuff into our pool if they choose to.”

At last Wednesday’s meeting, the commission was nearly divided on what to do with the extension.

In his “no” vote, commissioner Bob Perry took issue with the city code that put the commission in an “untenable situation” of making a binary decision.

“I think my choice to let it lapse is reflecting my view that the community comes first,” he said, to applause from the audience.

Chair Mark Schoeman was conflicted but eventually voted no.

“By not granting an extension, we are opening ourselves up to the devil we don’t know,” he said. “If we grant the extension, we are going to rely on the good faith of the developer in order to mitigate serious flaws with the approved plans.”

Commissioner Brian Worley also voted no.

Alternatively, Commissioner Frank Perri acknowledged the concerns of the Oxford Avenue residents, but approved the extension. Scott Horsley approved the extension saying that given the history and the parking structure requirement, he understood how the delays were unavoidable.

Commissioner Waen Messner said the property owners “didn’t let this entire parcel sit still for 12 years,” and while it hasn’t been completed at a desirable speed, there was basis to approve an extension. Commissioner John Neiuber agreed and approved the time extension.

—Matthew Bramlett

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