Supervisor Todd Spitzer, whose district includes the rural canyons of Orange County, told activists this week that he hasn’t yet decided whether to vote for an appeal in defense of a controversial housing project in Santiago Canyon.
Yet many activists wonder how Spitzer could still be on the fence on a project that has been debated for so long and where the opposing positions are so clear. The development also has generated substantial campaign contributions for supervisors.
Canyon activists are concerned that the county will appeal a recent Superior Court ruling that rejected the county supervisors’ approval of the 65-home Saddle Crest development and changes to the canyons’ land-use plan.
Spitzer replaced Supervisor Bill Campbell on the Board of Supervisors in January after the board voted to approve Saddle Crest. As the area’s supervisor, Spitzer is a key vote on whether to appeal.
At this Tuesday’s board meeting, county supervisors were implored by Modjeska Canyon resident Steven Duff to not continue the fight.
“My first point would be that this case seems to be a legal loser. Judge [Steven] Perk’s decision was thoughtful, reasoned, fair, articulate, concise,” Duff said.
“It was pushed through by Supervisor Spitzer’s predecessor. It is not clear to me what the political impetus would be in pursuing this matter,” he added. “It gives the appearance, if not the outright fact, of supporting one developer’s narrow business interests over the interest of the county as expressed in the [Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan].”
In response, Spitzer said he was studying the issue carefully as he weighs whether to vote for an appeal.
“Not only am I getting caught up, I’m doing absolutely my due diligence," Spitzer said. "I have a responsibility to understand this project fully, and I also have a responsibility to speak about it in a way to share my views with my colleagues."
“Just rest assured, I haven’t formed any opinions, and I’m still working on it, Mr. Duff,” he added.
Canyons activist Gloria Sefton wondered what was delaying Spitzer's opinion. “It’s such a clear victory. What aspect of it is still subject to review?” she asked.
“I think for Todd it’s got to be what do his constituents want and what’s best for the county, not for a single developer or developers in general.”
Through a spokesman, Spitzer declined to clarify his uncertainty.
“He’s going to do his due diligence to understand the issue, and when it comes before the board, he will address it further,” said spokesman Eugene Fields.
Asked what Spitzer’s stance was when he ran for office last year, Fields said, “It had already been passed by the previous board, so it wasn’t a campaign issue.”
Canyon activists are concerned that last year’s changes to the Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan pave the way for an array of new housing developments in the county’s rural canyons.
In a community editorial published by Voice of OC this week, Sefton wrote, “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,”
Rutter Development, the project’s developer, didn’t return a phone message seeking comment.
Last month, Judge Perk declared that when supervisors approved the development, they failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, the state's land-use laws and the county’s own land-use plans.
Perk 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.
He also ruled the county was undercounting the project’s traffic impacts by using an improper analysis.
County officials haven't announced when the supervisors will discuss whether to appeal the ruling.