Supervisors Approve Controversial Canyon Development Plan

The Orange County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted Tuesday to amend the county’s land use plan for Modjeska and Silverado canyons to allow a controversial 65-home development into the rural canyons just northwest of Cook’s Corner.

Supervisors also sent a strong message to environmental activists that a loosening of development restrictions in the county's canyons could be on the way.

Meanwhile, local residents and environmental activists blasted supervisors for weakening planning protections against urban sprawl developments and promised a lawsuit.

After motioning for approval of the 65-unit residential development, Supervisor Bill Campbell called the county’s Foothill/Trabuco Specific Plan outdated, restrictive and in need of development-friendly overhauls.

Campbell lamented the fact that only 10 residences have been built in the area since the plan was adopted in 1991.

“It’s something my successor is going to have to step up to,” said Campbell, who in January will be replaced by Supervisor-elect Todd Spitzer.

“If it’s righteous to amend the plan, then amend the plan,” said Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who voted for the development but criticized the process of amending the county’s development standards piecemeal and urged a full plan review.

Nelson, who represents North Orange County, indicated he largely followed Campbell’s lead on the development because it was in his district. Yet he questioned whether he really understood the impact of his own vote on the local canyon community without a full look at the specific plan.

“I just don’t’ know what we’re dealing with two years from now,” said Nelson. “I have no idea what’s about to happen.”

One thing that will clearly happen is a lawsuit, said environmental activists.

“The only recourse left is litigation,” said Ray Chandos of The Rural Canyon Conservancy, which already filed a successful lawsuit against the development that resulted in a 2005 decision by the 4th District Court of Appeal reversing a 2003 decision by county supervisors to approve a much larger development on the land.

Yet ironically, county planning staff and supervisors said Tuesday that the 2005 court’s decision largely provided the road map for development of the canyons because it laid out what could be approved.

County planning staff and the developer told supervisors that they had revamped their project with great attention toward the direction provided by the courts and said their project also featured the latest in environmental science, fire protection and water conservation.

Both also stressed that 70 percent of the project was slated for open space.

In briefing supervisors, Dave Eadie, a senior vice president for Irvine-based Rudder Development Corp., said several notable environmental groups such as Endangered Habitats League, the Sierra Club and the Department of Fish and Game had not protested the new environmental impact document for the project.

Eadie told supervisors that despite the amendments to the specific plan, their project was not “caving in and allowing developers to get what they want.”

“What we’re doing here is enabling the county to consider planning concepts like ours,” said Eadie, noting the clustering of the development to avoid larger environmental impacts.

Nonetheless, 25 local residents came to the hearing to blast county supervisors for ignoring the specific plan and all the community comment and activism that went into it.

Steven Duff, a Modjeska Canyon resident, told supervisors that the Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan had done exactly what it was meant to do regarding development approvals.

“It’s not easy; it’s not supposed to be,” Duff said. “These [specific] plans are brilliant. They were set up to prevent exactly what they are asking you do to."

“This is fundamentally a business problem you’re trying to fix for them,” Duff said, echoing sentiments by residents that the developer had purchased land knowing that the canyons are not meant for large housing developments.

Many residents noted that county supervisors had received campaign contributions from the developer.

In turn, residents brought a petition with more than 2,000 signatures opposing the project to the meeting.

“When you get that petition,” Duff said, “I hope you notice the cities and the comments. It’s all over this county. People are watching. This thing is wrong.”

Residents living in the canyons decried county supervisors for ignoring their private property rights, with many arguing they had purchased and maintained homes in the area because of its rural character.

“I believe in private property rights,” said resident Linda May. “There are also public rights.”

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