Community Editorial: Drop the Saddle Crest Lawsuit

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Supervisor John Moorlach recently posted an update on his website (Moorlach Update, August 30, 2013) after the airing of a PBS SoCal-Real Orange report on the Saddle Crest development in Trabuco Canyon.

Reporter David Nazar interviewed Moorlach shortly after Superior Court Judge Steven L. Perk issued a ruling against the actions of the Board of Supervisors in approving the Saddle Crest development and changes to the Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan and the county’s general plan.

Moorlach’s update contains a falsehood about the Saddle Crest property that he should correct.

He wrote that he has “personally walked on the Saddle Crest property” and that “[i]t does not host ancient oak forests, or anything similar.”

It would be good for him to get the facts from the environmental impact report or EIR for Saddle Crest, which he and his fellow supervisors voted to certify last October, before the board decides in closed session this Tuesday whether to appeal the court’s sound ruling.

The EIR contains numerous photographs and descriptions of coast live oak trees and oak woodlands on the property.

In fact, the EIR identified 197 coast live oak trees within the proposed development envelope and provided all relevant details of the 151 oaks (some with trunk diameters greater than 3 feet) that would have to be destroyed to make room for the 65 tract homes.

The development could not have moved forward without the supervisors’ vote to gut the Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan, a land-use plan the county Board of Supervisors itself adopted in 1991.

The primary goals of the plan are to preserve the rural character of the canyon areas and provide a buffer between urbanization and the Cleveland National Forest. Those goals are completely forsaken when oaks are bulldozed, land is flattened, and a suburban tract gate-guarded development is shoehorned in.

Although Supervisor Moorlach failed to notice the trees while he walked the property and also apparently failed to read about them in the EIR, Judge Perk was paying close attention.

The court ruled that the amendments to the FTSP that would have allowed destruction of the oaks were inconsistent with the county’s general plan and the FTSP’s goals to manage and preserve mature oak trees. Loosening of grading and density limits were also found to be unlawful, as were the county’s failure to adequately analyze traffic hazards on Santiago Canyon Road and future impacts of the FTSP and general plan amendments beyond the project site.

At least for now, barring any misguided appeal by the county or the developer, the court’s ruling has stopped the bulldozers. The county was ordered to set aside the Saddle Crest approvals until it complies with California’s environmental laws, its planning and zoning laws, the county general plan, and the FTSP.

Instead of now waging a ludicrous squabble about whether or not there are oaks on the canyon property, it would be much more becoming for this elected official to offer some contrition after the court found the board’s actions illegal when they approved Saddle Crest.

Supervisor Moorlach and the other supervisors, led by former 3rd District Supervisor Bill Campbell in whose district the Saddle Crest property lies, completely ignored more than 2,000 petitions and impassioned testimony and letters from citizens, who urged them last year to reject the development and the gutting amendments to the FTSP and general plan.

The supervisorial prerogative — that unstated rule that the supervisor in whose district a project lies dictates how the other supervisors vote — must have worked to the point where the others blindly put their trust in Campbell, perhaps so much so that they felt it unnecessary to review facts about the property and the impacts of the changes they were unleashing with the FTSP and general plan amendments.

Supervisor Moorlach also implied in his posting that those who challenge unlawful county land use decisions should buy the contested property: “The protestors, also a conservancy, did not wish to purchase this property, and stated so when I inquired during the Board meeting where the Saddle Crest development proposal was approved.”

It is absurd for Moorlach to suggest that petitioners in a legal challenge ought to have to purchase the contested land.

The Saddleback Canyons Conservancy, a nonprofit citizens group and one of five plaintiffs in the lawsuit, had enough on its hands raising funds to bring the successful legal challenge against the board’s irresponsible decision, let alone purchasing the 113.7-acre parcel.

If the Board of Supervisors followed the law as they are supposed to do, these expensive legal challenges would not be necessary, and maybe organizations like Saddleback Canyons Conservancy could spend their money on land acquisitions.

But bad decisions by the board are not the right path to making that happen.

Supervisor Moorlach should review the EIR and at least correct his statements about the oak tree resources on the project site.

In the meantime, we are seeing hopeful signs from Campbell’s successor, Todd Spitzer.

Supervisor Spitzer had no part in the approval of Saddle Crest — it was before his time — and now perhaps he can use the supervisorial prerogative in a positive way: by leading the other supervisors away from an appeal of the court’s sound decision.

That would go a long way to defeating the common perception that the county is owned by developers.

Perhaps Supervisor Spitzer will see the forest for the trees and the immense value that land use guidelines such as the FTSP provide to all of Orange County.

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