Community Editorial: County Has Lost Public Trust

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The county reportedly plans to appeal the July 26 court ruling that soundly rejected the Saddle Crest development and the eviscerating amendments to the Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan or FTSP and the county general plan.

The 65-unit tract development violated the FTSP, so the county, seemingly beholden to the developer, concocted amendments to the FTSP and general plan that assailed the longstanding land use rules for Orange County’s unique foothill canyons.

Those amendments would have changed the shape of the rural canyons forever by allowing ancient oak forests to be replaced with acorns and seedlings, by flattening out natural hills and valleys, and by packing in tract homes, first along scenic Santiago Canyon Road with this development, then throughout and beyond Trabuco Canyon.

The tentacles of this disastrous scheme reached far beyond Saddle Crest’s 113 acres, loosening standards in places like North Tustin, Orange Park Acres, Silverado Canyon, Modjeska Canyon and Coto de Caza, where land use is governed by the general plan or a specific plan.

Repeatedly throughout the administrative process, Rutter Development Corp. made it clear that it had one plan and one plan only. Not only did the developer not offer any plan that complied with the FTSP, it refused to budge on any facet of the project design or the plan amendments. It’s this plan or nothing, said Rutter, evidently confident of a successful final outcome.

Former 3rd District Supervisor Bill Campbell then put county planners and lawyers to work gutting the FTSP and general plan so that this project, blatantly defying the goals of these longstanding policy documents, might somehow be approved. Campbell turned a deaf ear to citizens and groups from all parts of Orange County and beyond who voiced fervent and well-informed opposition. Large numbers testified at hearings, wrote letters, and signed petitions, all to no avail. A coalition of public interest groups finally filed a lawsuit last fall challenging the supervisors’ reckless decision to approve Saddle Crest and the plan amendments.

Superior Court Judge Steven L. Perk ruled that Saddle Crest and the plan amendments violate California’s planning, zoning and environmental laws. As a result, Saddle Crest cannot move forward.

While the court victory is vindicating, a simple “no” vote from our full-time, elected Board of Supervisors would have avoided this massive waste of time, money and legal wrangling. It would also have sent a clear and simple message to future applicants for development approvals: Follow the rules.

The board’s failure is especially outrageous, because the unanimous vote in favor of the project was apparently another example of “supervisorial prerogative,” the unstated rule that the supervisor in whose district a project lies dictates how the other supervisors vote. Although two other supervisors, Bates and Nelson, voiced significant misgivings about the project and the amendments at the final hearing, they, along with the other supervisors, cast their superfluous votes in lockstep with Campbell.

Under the prerogative, elected officials become mere automatons programmed to deliver the political favor for the single district supervisor, and major campaign contributors like Rutter (which apparently bundled campaign contributions with its lobbyists and consultants), enjoy unwarranted bang for the buck. It’s an easy formula: Load up contributions to the district supervisor and sprinkle some on the others to clinch the vote.

Tellingly, the FBI is reportedly investigating whether political contributions have corrupted our local government. But even if those contributions weren’t illegal, we should recall political journalist Michael Kinsley’s warning: “… the scandal isn’t what’s illegal, the scandal is what’s legal.”

One would think that the county would be more circumspect after such a failed attempt to dismantle its own decades-old rules, not to mention the affront to its citizens. What seeming political favor owed by his predecessor, Bill Campbell, could be so important that the new 3rd District supervisor, Todd Spitzer, would favor the county appealing the court’s sound ruling and risk further alienation and animosity from Orange County’s citizens — and worse, continue to fuel the perception that county government is corrupt?

Although Rutter’s next steps in this sad tale are as yet unknown, the county has a chance to redeem itself, to exercise independence from corrupting influences and say “no” to any appeal of the court’s decision.

Whether our elected officials are smart enough to take the high road remains to be seen.

Gloria Sefton is co-founder of the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy, which was involved in the Saddle Crest lawsuit against the county, and is a member of the Voice of OC Community Editorial Board.

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