Letter: Deteriorated Slope Landscape

by MissionViejoDispatch.com on December 19, 2012

This is the second in a two part in-depth series on slope rehabilitation in Mission Viejo.

Perhaps the first capital improvement for the new City of Mission Viejo upon incorporation in 1988 was to install traffic lights at Marguerite Parkway and Felipe Rd., scene of high-impact traffic accidents. The County of Orange, which had governed the incorporated planned community, ranked this intersection 19th on the countywide unincorporated priority list.

Local control was the primary reason Mission Viejo residents voted for cityhood, with public safety topping on the priority list. The city hood vote was called following the announcement that the Mission Viejo Company, which built and maintained the city, would pull up stakes and move out upon build out in about 10 years. Indeed, the last homes were built and sold out about 2000.

Part one of my series on slope rehabilitation gave a broader background. Myself and other concerned citizens, notably Joe Holtzman, have recommended in recent years the top city responsibilities are public safety, streets and slopes. The City early on installed numerous traffic lights and beefed up police patrols, and in the last few years began asphalt overlay of most streets instead of slurry sealing.

Priorities come down to the slopes, many of which are in major need of upgrade. But deteriorated slopes are not as noticeable as high-impact traffic collisions with major injuries, even death. City Hall reported that it receives only one or two slope landscape complaints per year.

But the City includes 226 acres of landscaped slopes, with rehabilitation costs averaging $70,000 per acre (cost of clearing and new plantings, not routine trimming and maintenance). So far 42 acres have been rehabbed, most on Marguerite Parkway. That leaves 184 acres remaining for a total liability of $12,880,000. It sounds staggering, but hopefully manageable as I have concluded after meetings and tours with City staff in the past few weeks.

Funding for slope rehabilitation is approved by the City Council in the Maintenance Operation Fund within the General Fund. I believe slope rehabilitation should be top priority when the Council calls public hearings to review the 2013-2014 two-year budget in the spring.

I propose the City of Mission Viejo double its $350,000 annual allocation to slope maintenance to $700,000 or 10 acres per year. This is the minimum area possible without increasing the average cost by hiring outside designing and project supervision. At this pace the City can rehabilitate the slopes with the “worst first” approach, taking on sections that suffered loss of ground cover and shrubs like myoporum ravaged by parasites. Also, unsuitable plants like “bottle bushes” rise up from the surface but offer too much shade for ground cover to survive.

Some heavy vegetation becomes unmanageable and especially unsightly after a time. Some of the bare ground gets covered with feral plants. There are many original sections that are okay for the foreseeable future, but will need to be reworked eventually. Also many trees on slopes already rehabilitated will have to be cut down and replaced eventually.

If the pace proves too slow, the budget must be reconsidered with slopes the top priority other than emergency funding.

Since the onset of the recession, “The schedule is predicated on the available funds each year. Annually we have been using remaining funds within the operating area of the budget to fund the slope rehabilitation program,” explained Keith Rattay, assistant city manager and director of public works.

He and Jerry Hill, operations manager for the department of public works, met with myself; Dale Sandore, a concerned citizen with a background in the nursery business; and Rhonda Reardon, the new City mayor and consistent advocate for infrastructure as a City Council member. Hill took us on tours of the slopes of Marguerite, Alicia and Jeronimo, which, together with Trabuco Rd., make up most of the City slopes. Rattay serves as designer and Hill as project manager for slope rehabilitation, so the City doesn’t have to contract out for these services.

My major concern has been large trees falling onto the parkways and possibly hitting cars. Hill, an arborist, seemed familiar with all suspect trees I pointed out, including those leaning toward the street. He considers them safe now but routinely checks up on them. Numerous unacceptable trees are cut down in ongoing slope rehab work and others have been cut down from slopes not yet rehabbed.

The Mission Viejo Company planted rapidly growing species on the slopes to give the city a more finished look as the company was selling new homes. These deteriorate faster and are more susceptible to disease when planted in long, continuous swaths that invite parasites. New plantings are hardier and are used in visually compatible, alternating sections to make them less susceptible.

Except for a few individual preferences, and a different approach to temporary ground cover after plantings, Dale Sandore concurred with plant selection for the slopes. He also advocates thinning of dense stands of eucalyptus trees along Jeronimo.

In summary, the system is in place to double the pace of slope rehabilitation per year using existing staff planning and oversight. Rhonda Reardon and Keith Rattay concurred at the Dec. 1 City Council meetings that slopes have an impact on home values by contributing to the overall ambience of the City. Our rolling hillsides are advantageous over a relatively flat area as in the City of Irvine.

The rolling slopes of Laguna Niguel and Laguna Hills have much greater dependency on private homeowners associations for slope care. Mission Viejo slopes are mostly city owned, which can be an advantage if the City steps up and fulfills its responsibilities. Slope rehabilitation has waited patiently in the background up for to 50 years. It’s time in the spotlight is now.

A section of slope on Marguerite awaiting rehab work

Another section of Marguerite has been cleared for replanting. The City tries to leave desirable trees toward the center of the slope away from the street below and homes above.

Jerry Hill shows two section of Jeronimo at Marguerite planted one and two years ago. The city strives for shorter, compatible sections for variety and to avoid long stretches of identical plants that become targets for parasites over time.

Work crews add new plantings to Marguerite south of Jeronimo.

Allan Pilger

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Joe Holtzman December 20, 2012 at 3:05 am

Thanks to Mr. Pilger and the Dispatch for coverage on this subject. Slopes have a definite affect on all of our home values.

In reality the slopes have been ignored because there is no written plan, with defined schedules for rehabilitation. We have a defined/published plan and schedule for our streets now—-why not the slopes?

Allan Pilger December 20, 2012 at 9:27 am

Joe is right, and he deserves thanks for keeping slopes on the front burner for me. I felt the streets were first priority and moved on now that streets have been addressed.

By recommending slopes as top priority in the 2013-14 budget it sets the stage for a comprehensive rehab schedule with funding, as Joe proposes. I will be following this closely, and I am sure Joe and Dale Sandore will too, just as Joe and I will in subsequent years on street resurfacing.

Joe was the only one commenting on my first installment. Would like to see some more articles from Dispatch readers on the importance and priority of our slopes. Reader response on our long battle for the streets helped bring about a change in attitude at City Hall.

F. Stephen Masek December 20, 2012 at 6:47 pm

It seems that many good trees which are not a danger to anyone are being cut down. It thus seems like make-work for the expensive “prevailing wage” contractors. It is also worth wondering if they are planting things which will require more maintenance than before, creating even more make-work. It takes decades to grow a decent tree, and many of us may not live long enough to see the twigs now being planted grow into nice trees the size of those chopped down. Of course, the trees which require high-maintenance may be just what the contractors want, so it is less of a problem for us taxpayers if more of them are removed.

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