Community Editorial: Don’t Let Developer Reshape the Canyons

Residents at the May 9 Meeting of the Foothill/Trabuco Specific Plan Review Board
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Ever had a rash that just won’t go away?

So it is with Rutter Development Co.’s ceaseless attempts to transform the bucolic Orange County canyons.

As large landholders scorned by an appellate court decision in 2005 that sent them packing on their twin tract developments known as SaddleCreek and SaddleCrest by legendary Cook’s Corner, this time they’ve concentrated all efforts (and devastating environmental impacts) on SaddleCrest, with an even higher number of housing units than planned before.

The developer was able to cut its losses on SaddleCreek with a fair-market-value sale to the Orange County Transportation Authority for environmental mitigation — paid for by taxpayers from Renewed Measure M funds and by the nonprofit Conservation Fund.

SaddleCreek is now safe from the threat of development.

Still left with the SaddleCrest land, though, Rutter is resurrecting its plan to gut Trabuco Canyon’s zoning code to put in a 65-unit, gated, executive tract home development along Santiago Canyon Road.

Of course, that’s the two-lane scenic rural highway that Orange County residents love.

The zoning code that they want to gut is the Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan, adopted in 1991 by a prescient Board of Supervisors, who saw the value in keeping development entirely out of certain areas by requiring that where development does take place, it is consistent with the plan’s goal of preserving the “rural character” of the area.

Not so hard to understand when you consider that the 6,500-acre specific plan area borders the Cleveland National Forest, contains exceptional landform, biological and scenic resources, numerous wildlife corridors and endangered plant and animal species.

The area is a haven for equestrians, hikers and mountain bikers, home to a famous bikers’ destination, and a refuge for those looking to escape the paved monotony that has become most of Orange County.

Never mind all that though.

This developer is hell-bent on putting a square peg in a round hole and to do so has worked tirelessly with the county to amend not only the specific plan but the Orange County General Plan, to strip the general plan’s requirement that new development in the specific plan area be “rural in character,” to change the current traffic analysis methodology (appropriate for rural highways) so that they can fudge compliance with the required level of service for rural Santiago Canyon Road, and to clear-cut over 150 mature oaks and plant acorns and saplings in their stead.

These changes, they say, must be made so that their development can fly.

That’s true.

Without the zoning changes, no way can the project move forward. Sounds like the zoning is just right the way it is.

Residents aren’t taking it sitting down.

On May 9, the developer sought a vote from the Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan Review Board, which advises the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors on project consistency with the specific plan.

After more than three hours of impassioned public testimony opposing the development and the amendments to the plans, the review board gave the whole nightmare the thumbs down.

The review board certainly did its job, providing solid reasoning for each no vote on the amendments, only to be interrupted by the developer’s lobbyist telling the board to not bother going through each amendment.

It’s all or nothing.

The developer made it plain that it sees the review board as some type of irritating formality. Just get us to the Planning Commission without having to deal with your silly critique.

The county Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors have a long history of ignoring the review board’s votes and recommendations anyway.

Makes you wonder what’s really driving county decision making.

It is time for the county to get on board with its own recent adoption of the Sustainable Communities Strategy, mandated by two important laws related to greenhouse gas emissions.

SaddleCrest is the epitome of a typical urban sprawl development , incongruous with progressive land-use principles adopted in other parts of the state and incompatible with the rich heritage that still remains in Orange County’s canyon areas, thanks to zoning regulations like the Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan.

Concerned Orange County residents should make their voices heard by commenting to the 3rd District supervisor, Bill Campbell, and by providing comments on the SaddleCrest draft environmental impact report in circulation until June 4.

More information can be obtained here

Gloria Sefton is co-founder of the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy and a Voice of OC Community Editorial Board member.

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