Despite pleas from the public and conservation groups and the obvious potential for a legal battle, the Orange County Planning Commission agreed July 25 to Rutter Development Corp.’s plan to overhaul the Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan (FTSP) and increase the Orange County General Plan’s traffic limit on scenic Santiago Canyon Road.

All of this is to shoehorn in a 65-unit gated tract-home development known as Saddle Crest.

The approval, granted by a 4-1 vote, affects not just this single project but the entire county General Plan and other specific plan areas — North Tustin, Coto de Caza, and Silverado-Modjeska — with ramifications unknown and unstudied.

“The specific plan and General Plan amendments apply well outside the project boundaries and even countywide” and would “profoundly affect the amount and character of future development in the region,” said Ray Chandos, who chaired the advisory committee that originally formulated the FTSP with the county’s support and involvement.

The FTSP was adopted in 1991 by a far-seeing Board of Supervisors to preserve the Foothill-Trabuco area, but the current amendment to the General Plan would strip the requirement that new development in the FTSP area be “rural in character” – probably the most important feature that differentiates the area and makes it a gem of Orange County. The amendment would relax the FTSP’s standards for grading, density and oak preservation that ensure the area maintains its unique character.

The 6,500-acre specific plan area borders the Cleveland National Forest and contains exceptional landform, biological and scenic resources, endangered plant and animal species and numerous wildlife corridors. In fact, a wildlife corridor that connects the Cleveland National Forest and the Whiting Ranch Wilderness Area runs right through the Saddle Crest property.

Eight of Rutter’s crammed-in homes will now abut that corridor.

The FTSP area is a recreational destination for equestrians, mountain bikers, hikers, bicyclists and motorcyclists whose safety will be affected by the significant increase in traffic brought by the project. The area is also home to O’Neill Park and its popular campground and wilderness area frequented by residents from all over Orange County who desire to get away from the urban existence.

To preserve the natural resources, rural character and beauty of the area, the FTSP requires developments to be low-density (Rutter’s  suburban-style subdivision with flat building pads surely doesn’t fit the bill); to preserve oak woodlands to the greatest extent possible (Rutter’s destruction of 151 oaks and mitigation of this devastation by planting acorns surely doesn’t fit the bill); to minimize grading (Rutter’s enormous manufactured slopes surely don’t fit the bill); and to meet the FTSP’s goal of providing a buffer between urban development and the Cleveland National Forest (Rutter’s gate-guarded dense tract development between Santiago Canyon and the forest surely doesn’t fit the bill). The list goes on.

Truth be told, none of the developer’s plans for this project fit the bill.

But that’s no problem. County lawyers and planners have apparently fixed that in a scheme that has many citizens wondering what kind of local government we’ve got. All of Orange County should be wondering — and should be very concerned.

A little history is important here.

Rutter’s previous attempt to gut the FTSP with its Saddle Creek-Saddle Crest twin housing developments near Cook’s Corner was foiled by a California District Court of Appeal in 2005 because of a lawsuit brought by a coalition of conservation groups: the Endangered Habitats League, Sierra Club, Sea & Sage Audubon, California Oak Foundation, California Native Plant Society and Rural Canyons Conservation Fund. The court threw out the county’s approvals of those developments and sent Rutter back to the drawing board. The process resulted in Rutter selling the Saddle Creek land for conservation in perpetuity, purchased with renewed Measure M and other conservation funds for environmental mitigation.

Amazingly, the resurrected Saddle Crest proposes even more housing units than before and still utterly fails to comply with the FTSP and General Plan. In order to cram in the greatest number of units to turn a profit, Rutter has mischaracterized the dense project as some type of “environmentally superior,” “clustered” development. It’s impossible, though, to distinguish it from the typical tract residential development found anywhere in Orange County, and that means that the rural canyons will soon become more of the same.

Instead of requiring that the project comply with the law, that is, the FTSP and General Plan, the Planning Commission voted to do the reverse — change the law to comply with Rutter’s project. Presto! It’s suddenly all legal. Development no longer must be “rural” in character; once-protected oak trees may now be cut down and replaced by acorns; required open-space areas need no longer be “natural” (manufactured slopes are just fine); and lot sizes restrictions are now out the window.

Apparently, however, the Planning Commission doesn’t relish the thought of another court rebuke. Asked by the commission whether these amendments would withstand legal scrutiny, county counsel Jack Golden provided the desired assurance. “Yes, we worked closely with the applicant on the amendments, and some of them came really from us originally to try to deal with everything the court found to be inadequate last time around. So we believe they do address the court opinion, and we will not face the same problems next time we’re before the court.”

Wait a minute. The amendments came from you? Is it the job of the county’s lawyers to undo approved planning documents to facilitate a developer’s “inadequate,” noncompliant project? If the law were simply followed, there wouldn’t be a “next time we’re before the court.”

What should the Planning Commission have done?

They should have rejected this inappropriate housing tract and shameless dismantling of the FTSP. The commissioners are supposed to be applying the FTSP and General Plan to projects that come their way, not changing regulations to fit developers’ wishes.

They also should have applied the planning policies of the Orange County Sustainable Communities Strategy, adopted just a year ago, that seeks to preserve open space and avoid this type of sprawl development. They didn’t even mention it. Only 4th District Commissioner Cameron Irons got it right and cast the lone vote against the destructive project.

What’s really going on here? Word on the street is that 3rd District Supervisor Bill Campbell green-lighted this development proposal by a key campaign contributor early on and set county staff to work so that the vote would come to the board before his term ends December 31.

In concocting these amendments at the apparent behest of Supervisor Campbell, county staff and counsel have handed their bosses, the county supervisors, excessive powers to override these longstanding planning documents. Now the supervisors will be given unbounded authority to judge whether a project is in “overall harmony” with the goals and objectives of the General Plan and specific plans and may toss out any goals and objectives they feel don’t fit a particular project that they want to approve.

This is the antithesis of good planning and responsible government. It short circuits the civic process, thwarts our system of checks and balances and thumbs its nose at public comment and opinion — not to mention setting up a shady scheme whereby political favors in the form of important land-use decisions can easily be handed out.

The current supervisors, in stark contrast to their predecessors who saw a paramount need to protect the FTSP area, apparently want to change the FTSP and the General Plan to open the area to widespread development, but evidently won’t do it unless they have a project driving it. That point was made clear by Planning Commission Chairwoman Elizabeth Hall. “There isn’t the political will … independent of a project to bring about this change,” she said.

But the county shouldn’t use a developer to make an end run around planning codes that represent accepted ways of governance and the law of the land. Sweeping amendments like these need the consideration of all stakeholders, including the communities where these planning documents govern, rather than being driven by a single developer’s noncompliant proposal.

A better solution to it all, of course, would be conservation of the Saddle Crest property, as was done with Saddle Creek. Maybe this could be done in exchange for Rutter getting development rights in a more suitable location elsewhere in the county. But that would require progressive planning on the county’s part. It’s the type of thing that’s done in other counties in this state, those that value their natural resources and communities. And it would be a much better use of county staff and counsel time.

Instead, look for the Board of Supervisors to give its approval of the project’s environmental impact report and FTSP and General Plan amendments after the comment period on the final environmental impact report closes on Sept. 4.

In the meantime, Rutter isn’t wasting any time. The developer is moving forward to get approval of its tract map from the county’s subdivision committee on August 15th — that’s right, before the supervisors even vote on the project.

Better re-ink the rubber stamp.

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

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