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As Orange County supervisors decide whether to appeal a ruling that shut down plans for a controversial housing project in rural Santiago Canyon, activists in the area tell PBS SoCaL’s David Nazar that they’re livid and baffled at how their supervisor, Todd Spitzer, could still be on the fence.

“It would be prudent for Supervisor Spitzer to stake out his position on this, make it clear to us what his thinking is on it. I think that’s only right for him as the supervisor for this district,” said Steve Duff, an activist with the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy.

Spitzer declined to comment to PBS SoCaL, though a representative said he will do his due diligence to understand the issue.  When it comes before the board again, Spitzer will have further comment, the representative added.

The 65-home Saddle Crest project was halted in July by Superior Court Judge Steven Perk, who declared that the county failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, state land-use law and the county’s own land-use plans.

The project was approved in October before Spitzer was elected to the board.

Supervisor John Moorlach also said that he doesn’t yet know whether he agrees with the judge’s decision but that it seemed sound when it was brought before the Board of Supervisors for a vote.

“The [Foothill-Trabuco] Specific Plan was reviewed by county counsel [Nick Chrisos]. It was vetted, it went through a lot of discussion,” said Moorlach.

“It is a 3rd District item, and so then 3rd District Supervisor Bill Campbell worked rather strongly to get some kind of resolution for that property. And we were left with the impression as supervisors that everything that was provided to us was going to hold up,” he added.

Another concern of activists is that all five sitting supervisors received campaign donations from the project’s developer, Rutter Development Corp., and its lobbyist.

“As far as I know, they were all made legally, but obviously they’re going to have an impact. Obviously they have had an impact,” said Duff.

Moorlach said the contributions didn’t affect his vote.

“I don’t memorize who gives me money. I’m not focused in that way, and I don’t pursue contractors or potential projects in that regard,” said Moorlach. “So when I made my vote, [I] didn’t even think about that component of the deal.”

Activists argued, and Judge Perk agreed, that the project violates a hard-earned land-use plan intended to preserve the area’s rural character.

“The Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan requires that any develop preserve two-thirds of the area as natural open space,” said Rich Gomez of the conservancy. “The project developer had instead proposed that less than half of the land be preserved as open space, and they considered the culverts and landscaping [as] open space.”

“We absolutely support private property rights and the development of homes. All we’re saying — and all we said in the lawsuit — was, just build it according to the [specific] plan,” said Gomez.

The segment aired this week on PBS SoCaL’s “Real Orange.” Click the video above to see the full report.

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