When the Orange County Board of Supervisors last year approved the controversial Saddle Crest development in Trabuco Canyon, members of the board were called out for a faulty environmental study and the large amount of campaign contributions they received from the development’s backers.

Now an Orange County Superior Court judge has ruled that the approval was illegal.

The ruling, issued last week by Judge Steven Perk, declares that the county failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act  or CEQA, with state land-use law and with the county’s own land-use plans.

Perk prohibited the county “from taking any action to implement the project until compliance with the requirements of CEQA and CEQA guidelines, state Planning and Zoning Laws, Orange County General Plan and the Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan have been met.”

The ruling was met with joy from the activists who filed the suit, which included the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy; Rural Canyons Conservation Fund; Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks; Audubon California; and the California Native Plant Society.

“It’s just thrilling really. It just feels like the balance was really perturbed by this decision” of the Board of Supervisors to sign off on the project, said Gloria Sefton, co-founder of the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy. “I just feel like the judge put the balance back where it needed to be. [The supervisors’] was a terrible decision — unlawful — and the ruling sets it right.”

Development at the Saddle Crest site has been hotly contested for more than a decade, with Irvine-based Rutter Development Corp. trying to building housing and conservationists arguing that it would damage pristine wilderness and the area’s rural character.

The latest project proposes building 65 homes on a section of Santiago Canyon Road just north of Cook’s Corner.

In response to the project’s approval by the supervisors, a coalition of conservation groups sued the county, arguing that supervisors violated CEQA by not properly studying impacts to traffic on Santiago Canyon Road and to native wildlife and the effect of lifting a requirement that dedicated open space be “natural.”

When it came to traffic, the activists asserted that the county was undercounting actual traffic flow by changing the analysis from the “highway capacity manual” or HCM approach to “volume-to-capacity” or “V/C),” which analyzed only a small stretch of Santiago Canyon Road.

“Using the V/C method effectively understates true traffic volumes on rural roads like Santiago Canyon Road,” their petition asserted.

The judge agreed.

“The traffic impacts of the proposed development are disguised by the V/C report not considering traffic over a longer period of time and at more points on the roadway in this instance,” the judge declared, noting that “bottlenecks already occur on the canyon road before the increase traffic from this project.”

Sefton said that under the proper traffic analysis, the project would be shown to have significant impacts.

“Using that [HCM] methodology, there’s no way their project could move forward, because the level of service on the road would deteriorate so badly,” she said. “They tried to cover that up, that impact, by changing the methodology.”

Perk also sided with activists in ruling that the county made illegal changes to the Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan, which is designed to preserve the area’s rural character.

“The amendment to include the precedence clause violates the state planning and zoning law by disregarding the mandatory and clearly expressed goals and objectives. (i.e. preservation of mature oak trees). Although replaceable over time, what is the propriety of their destruction and that of related biological assets and natural open space,” the judge wrote.

“The Foothill-Trabuco Specific amendments are inconsistent with the General Plan and the Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan goals to manage and ‘preserve’ mature oak trees, natural open space, and grading limits and lot size. The development in question reduces ‘open space’ to less than 50% and permits a ten fold increase in the amount of grading,” he added.

Details on the firm that prepared the EIR weren’t available over the weekend; the document is missing from county meeting records, where it’s listed as an attachment.

When the traffic study was challenged last fall, however, the county included a response from RK Engineering Group Inc. asserting that it was done properly.

“Based upon our review, we do not see any traffic related issues that have not been addressed as part of the Draft and Final EIR for the Saddle Crest project,” wrote Robert Kahn, principal at RK Engineering.

A county grand jury report pointed earlier this year to a legacy of developers having a powerful influence on local officials.

“Historically, Orange County has been a hotbed of corruption, conflict of interest and abuse of authority — much of it due to the money influence of developers on officials during its growth phase,” the panel wrote.

“The unparalleled development of Orange County from an agrarian to world-class economy in the post-World War II era led to the creation of a ‘power elite’ of land developers and public officials,” it found. “The influence of ‘development dollars’ in the form of contributions to public officials resulted in a series of public corruption cases over a forty-year period.”

Last week, Voice of OC reported that the FBI has formed a task force to investigate corruption in Orange County.

Rutter Development Corp. and others interested in the project have given at least $17,450 in campaign contributions to county supervisors, according to a county tally.

“If you looked at that document, you’d see they were reaching out to their consultants and other people to maximize the campaign contribution,” said Sefton. The county’s campaign contribution limit for individual donors currently stands at $1,900 per election.

Another $5,100 was channeled to the supervisors’ campaigns through the political action committee of Rutter’s lobbyist, Lyle Overby (who is also a Voice of OC Community Editorial Board member). Those contributions weren’t included in the county-provided list.

Sefton expressed hope that more openness will minimize the influence of money in politics.

“I hope that these days are winding down and that we have a more transparent and responsive elected body that … does not take pained efforts to roll back regulations so that one developer gets his way,” she said.

The county has said it plans to appeal Perk’s ruling.

“I don’t know why they would do that,” said Sefton. “The law’s against them.”

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.