Canyon activists are praising Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer’s decision to not support an appeal of the Saddle Crest court ruling, hailing it as a potential turning point in a county land use planning process that they say puts the interests of developers before residents.
“I’m just so thrilled about how Todd Spitzer handled this situation,” said Gloria Sefton, co-founder of the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy and a leading activist on the issue. “It’s a big relief. I think it says a lot for respecting the wishes of the community.”
Spitzer announced Tuesday that he disagreed with the way the county went about approving the housing project last year before he joined the Board of Supervisors. He said there was no support among his colleagues for an appeal.
His position is key, since as the representative for the canyons area in eastern Orange County, he plays an influential role over the project and the canyons in general.
Sefton said she appreciated the time Spitzer took to understand the issue, including touring the site.
“He knew the complexity of the project. He knew the details of what the amendments to the plans actually meant,” said Sefton.
“I think this was a defining moment for the board: to have this decision to make, to do right by the people and the law and everything else,” she added.
The project’s developer, Rutter Development Corp., didn’t return a message seeking comment.
Under the Saddle Crest project, Rutter was set to build 65 homes in rural Trabuco Canyon just northwest of Cook’s Corner.
To approve the plan, county supervisors had to change the Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan, which was designed to protect the area’s rural character through preserving oak trees and natural open space and limiting grading and lot sizes. Those decisions came last year, before Spitzer was on the board.
Activists sued and ultimately won a Superior Court ruling that the approval failed to comply with state environmental and land use laws and with the Foothill-Trabuco plan.
The lawsuit was filed by the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy, Rural Canyons Conservation Fund, Friends of Harbors Beaches and Parks, California Native Plant Society and the National Audubon Society.
After the court ruling, activists were unsure which way Spitzer would lean on pursuing an appeal. He had said he was studying the issue carefully as he weighed his vote.
If supervisors did appeal, the activists would have likely needed to raise thousands of dollars more and devote significant time to continuing the legal fight.
He ultimately decided against appealing, saying Tuesday that any changes to the specific plan deserve broad-based community discussions rather than amending the entire plan for one project.
“To have to make significant and dramatic changes to the [Foothill-Trabuco] Specific Plan, which would stretch way beyond the Saddle Crest parcel, that’s a discussion that deserves a full vetting,” Spitzer said.
Spitzer said he spent the last two weeks reviewing the entire record on Saddle Crest, including walking the property and reading its environmental impact report, litigation memos and public comments.
“I wanted to give everybody an opportunity to tell me what they wanted me to know,” said Spitzer.
The most monumental moment, he said, was when he was riding his motorcycle down Santiago Canyon Road this weekend.
“Do I want to be the supervisor that’s responsible for forever changing the rural character of this canyon?” Spitzer asked himself.
He now plans to start an open process to explore whether the Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan is striking the right balance between private property rights and the area’s rural character. It would involve a staff review of the plan and whether it includes the best science and biological practices.
Spitzer said he is “absolutely dedicated” to preserving the rural character of the area. “It deserves to be protected,” he said.
At the same time, he said he believes the plan is used “as an absolute block to any development,” citing only 10 single-family homes built since it went into effect in 1991.
Sefton said that she welcomes the discussion and that residents will likely argue for even more restrictions on development.
One idea she cited is offering an opportunity for developers who fear opposition to transfer their development rights to other areas. Another option is establishing a growth boundary.
“If there’s going to be a discussion, I think those things need to be on the table as well,” said Sefton.
Rutter could still appeal the case on its own without the county. A representative of the company implored supervisors this week to “collectively exhaust our administrative remedies” in the courts.
“I think the deliberative process has been healthy, it’s been long,” the representative said at the Board of Supervisors' regular meeting in Santa Ana. He added that Rutter engaged environmentalists in planning the project and reserved more than 400 acres of open space.
Reflecting on the recent victories, Sefton said they show the power of citizen activism to make real change happen.
“You don’t have to be brilliant," she said. "You don’t have to be an attorney. You don’t have to be totally knowledgeable about all the procedures. But you just have to pay attention and read things and don’t miss hearings. Show up. Speak.”
Much of their success, Sefton added, was through bringing together a broad coalition of groups, such as the Foothill Communities Association and residents of Orange Park Acres, Silverado Canyon and Modjeska Canyon, who are concerned about how the land use plan changes could endanger the area’s rural nature.
“I’m extremely happy,” said Sefton. “I think there’s hope for representation from Santa Ana now.”