Trabuco Canyon

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The date of Oct. 2, 2012, will go down in Orange County history as a kind of “Black Tuesday” — the day Orange County supervisors turned their backs on their constituents (and the environment) and approved massive changes to longstanding canyon planning rules to accommodate a tract housing development proposed by a single developer, Rutter Santiago.

The 65-unit project, Saddle Crest, is situated on vast, undulating open space along scenic Santiago Canyon Road in the rural canyons.

Saddle Crest doesn’t come anywhere near to complying with the rules that protect Trabuco Canyon’s natural resources, scenic beauty and rural charm. Those rules, embodied in the Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan (FTSP), were adopted by an astute board of supervisors in 1991 after careful negotiations in numerous community meetings and a cost of $1.23 million.

That board saw value in protecting the rural canyons as a resource for all of Orange County.

Until Black Tuesday, the rules worked as planned to keep the area special — a break from the developed monotony that has become the majority of Orange County.

Until Black Tuesday, the rules protected the area’s natural beauty and heritage while allowing for appropriate development.

Until Black Tuesday, the rules lived up to their goal of preserving the buffer between development and the Cleveland National Forest.

But today’s supervisors see the 21-year-old FTSP as “outdated” and “dysfunctional” despite its obvious successes. These are convenient terms to throw at the FTSP when it stands in the way of profit for a single developer determined to get its way.

Saddle Crest doesn’t come close to meeting the FTSP’s requirements — not on grading limits or oak tree protections or density limits or open space dedication. And it doesn’t meet the Orange County General Plan’s requirements for traffic safety on rural Santiago Canyon Road or in making sure that development stays rural.

To make all of those failings magically disappear, county planners and lawyers went to astonishing lengths to rewrite the FTSP and General Plan rules to fit the developer’s project rather than require the developer to propose a project that fits the rules.

Repeatedly using bizarre euphemisms like “better biology” to defend the project’s impacts (Rutter will destroy 151 mature oak trees and replace them with acorns), the developer succeeded in putting the supervisors under its spell.

“Better biology, better biology.” If you repeat it enough times, you will start to believe it. It’s no wonder the supervisors want to believe it; Rutter and its allies are major campaign contributors. That makes twisted logic and backwards planning a little easier to swallow.

In carrying out this travesty, the county has managed to degrade the planning process by turning it into a kind of source for private gain rather than an instrument of the public good that it is supposed to be.

Not only did the supervisor-appointed FTSP Review Board unanimously deny the project, more than 2,000 petitions were submitted to the supervisors urging a no vote, and testimony at the public’s last-chance hearing was overwhelmingly opposed to the project. This in addition to the hundreds of comments in opposition submitted in response to the environmental impact report.

Did any of the supervisors even crack the report to read it?

The county seems to have trouble following its own rules. Just last year, the county adopted a regional Sustainable Communities Strategy to meet state-mandated reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

But the Saddle Crest project is a poster child for what not to do. It is an island, miles from services and lacking in infrastructure, the epitome of sprawl. “At what point will you actually honor the policies you adopted in the SCS?” asked Claire Schlotterbeck of Friends of Harbor, Beaches & Parks.

Two supervisors, Bates and Nelson, seemed to struggle with the amendments and their consequences.

“What I worry about is what is not being brought forward. What other parcels may or may not be … affected by this? I don’t have any idea. It hasn’t been discussed at all,” said Nelson.

“We don’t know if it’s growth-inducing, which is a big issue,” added Bates. “I’m not sure we really have a list of projects that … are the ‘floodgates’ in this area that will follow your project.”

But both nonetheless bowed to 3rd District Supervisor Bill Campbell’s prerogative, the project being in his district.

That’s the way it works, folks.

And Campbell’s on his way out, so he must have figured the community’s outcry was of little consequence, because he indicated more undoing of the FTSP was needed. “I’m gonna leave a challenge for my successor [Todd Spitzer] on the rest … of that plan,” he said. Rutter and its Saddle Crest allies have already anticipated that challenge with large campaign contributions to Todd Spitzer.

Rutter chose the path of most resistance. Rutter refused to propose a compliant plan. The developer arrogantly came in with the Saddle Crest plan set in stone and demanded a complete rewrite of the rules, affecting not only the project area, but the entire 6,500-acre FTSP area and all unincorporated areas in Orange County. (The General Plan amendments allow the supervisors to “balance” goals and objectives when deciding whether a project meets the General Plan or any specific plan.)

The supervisors should have rejected all of this on October 2.

Instead, they turned their backs on their constituents, leaving them no recourse but long and expensive litigation.

The county has little to lose.

The county counsel says the permit requires that Rutter pay all litigation costs. But the citizens? Well, thank goodness in this democratic society we still have checks and balances for this failure of leadership and abuse of executive power, putting private interests above the public’s.

Unfortunately, citizens and nonprofit groups have to raise and then spend their own hard-earned money and time on litigation.

It should never have come to this.

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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