Sefton: OC Community Planning Efforts Should be Respected

Now that Chairman and Third District Supervisor Todd Spitzer has returned the North Tustin Specific Plan to its rightful owner – the community of North Tustin – he should do the same for the other specific plans that were gutted at the behest of his predecessor in office, Supervisor Bill Campbell.

Like the anomalous senior housing complex proposed for North Tustin, the Saddle Crest 65-home tract development in Trabuco Canyon, vigorously opposed and legally challenged by community and conservation organizations, ran afoul of existing land-use protections under the Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan.

What do these projects have in common?

Both were facilitated by Campbell’s changing longstanding specific plans in an apparent favor to his developer donors.

Through the “supervisorial prerogative” (where the rest of the supervisors blithely follow the wish and command of the district supervisor), Campbell persuaded his fellow board members to go along with Saddle Crest’s developer to shoehorn an inappropriate project into the rural canyons.

The Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan was summarily redlined with a raft of amendments to remove oak tree protections (allowing acorns to replace old-growth trees), eliminate grading limits (allowing mass-grading of natural hills and valleys), toss density requirements (allowing a standard subdivision in the rural canyons), and count manmade slopes, berms, and spaces between housing pads in the required open-space dedication. The amendments also arbitrarily changed the traffic analysis method for scenic Santiago Canyon Road to disguise the true traffic impacts of the housing project on the two-lane rural highway.

But even worse than those changes, which will certainly incrementally destroy the canyons’ rural character and irreplaceable natural resources, Campbell simultaneously led the previous board to add insidious changes to the Orange County General Plan that will incrementally weaken, if not destroy, all specific plans.

That means not only is the Foothill-Trabuco area threatened, other areas governed by specific plans like Silverado-Modjeska, North Tustin (again), Orange Park Acres, and Coto de Caza are threatened.

The General Plan amendment is a self-serving power grab for the Board of Supervisors that gives them unfettered discretion to pick and choose which goals and objectives of these longstanding plans they wish to apply to any future development project that comes before them for approval.

With this new amendment in place, the board only has to determine that a project is in “overall harmony” with the General Plan and any applicable specific plan. This takes away any hope of clarity as to what these land-use documents actually mean, and foretells huge changes for the landscape and character of some of the most scenic, resource-rich, and distinctive unincorporated lands. Now the future entirely depends on the whim of the particular board voting on a particular project.

And to secure their total power to foist unwanted projects onto established communities, they added a capper to the General Plan amendment that goes even further, allowing the board to consider “environmental consequences” of a proposed development in applying any provisions of the General Plan or a specific plan, not just goals and objectives, but regulations, policies, and anything else in the plan. The thinly veiled amendment might as well have said the board can disregard land-use plans altogether.

And it seems we can no longer depend on the court system to remedy bad decisions of local government agencies. Recent decisions of the 4th District Court of Appeal have sided with local government agency actions attacking longstanding land-use documents, although the California Supreme Court has decided to weigh in and may make the final correction in a couple of cases. We must shore up the General Plan and specific plans so that they’re shielded from attacks based on arbitrary decisions and, worse, the corrupting influence of political contributions.

Land-use and zoning plans are typically developed after extensive community discussion, testimony, and negotiation, and represent a compact between the community and local government. These plans protect neighborhoods and the property rights of residents in those neighborhoods from intrusive, unwanted projects that are incompatible with the existing community and character. Community residents agree to follow the rules and expect their government officials to do the same. When an elected board slackens the rules for a developer pushing an incongruous project, it reneges on this compact and undermines the integrity of the community.

While it’s true that the plans may need amending from time to time, the community should actually want the amendments and the amendments should improve, not tear down, the provisions that guide planning and development.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer has shown leadership and courage by undoing the changes to the North Tustin Specific Plan that would have allowed an inappropriate development in a residential neighborhood. It wasn’t easy to do and it took a fair amount of his and County staff time. We now look to him to undo the changes left in the wake of the disastrous Saddle Crest court decision to restore the integrity of all of the County’s specific plans.

Gloria Sefton is an attorney and long-time environmental advocate. She is co-founder of the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy, and a board member of Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks. Ms. Sefton is a graduate of Whittier Law School and currently practices law in the life sciences industry.

  • Harry Helms

    Me and my two siblings own property in this Trabucco specific plan area. To try and build a single family home on our property is so cumbersome and expensive that only those with unlimited resources could afford to build a house here. The cost of complying with all the rules and regulations was estimated to be over $100,000. I’m not talking about a project with multiple housing units that might spoil the area I’m talking about one single family home. There’s a housing crisis in California and more and more people aren’t able to rent or buy houses yet there’s all these rules and regulations that prevent poor people from being able to afford a home make the housing crisis even worse. I was also told by a civil engineerthat since We own several acres of property that as one of the conditions , I might have to donate 2/3 of the property as preserved open space. It’s gotten to the point where the county is telling me what I have to do with my own property as a condition to build my own house.

    For many years now there hasn’t been enough housing built to satisfy the population growth in California. Now that there is a housing crisis especially in coastal California we need to build more affordable housing and make it easier to do so in rural areas but still keep the density low. I Believe the Trabucco specific plan area requires a minimum of 4 acres so anybody with a lot that has not been already approved for building permit would have 4 acres of open space. Is that not enough? With the regulations that are in effect now in this area and other areas in California the housing crisis will only get worse and there will be more and more homelessness.

  • Jacki Livingston

    Supervisor Todd Spitzer has never, not one time in his entire life, shown anything that remotely travels in the same word circles at “leadership” or “courage”. Honey, your needs fit his political needs right now. And, make no mistake about it, if your needs were to conflict with his, down the road? He would throw down and back out so fast, it would make your head spin. Todd Spitzer is the sleaziest, lowest and most vile “public servant” (gigglesnickersnort) that the OC has been saddled with since Carona and Bustemante. Actually, I would rate him lower. Anyone who profits off the embezzling of funds from comatose and paralyzed nursing home patients ranks right up there with TV Preachers and pedophiles, on my list of scum fit for the Seventh Circle. But, hey, so long as those million dollar views aren’t muddled up with those inconvenient poor people who really need affordable housing, it’s all good for you, isn’t it? Carry on….

  • David Zenger

    Bill Campbell & Co. ran roughshod all over the Trabuco and Sil-Mod SPs aided and abetted by a supine planning department and lackadaisical “colleagues.”

    It had been going on sporadically for years and really accelerated when he was going out the door.

    The Sil-Mod SP isn’t even regarded as statutory by the County – a really strange decision taken by County Counsel but great for Campbell who wanted to develop the old Holtz Ranch.

    Still, both specific plans are horribly dated and need to be revisited, particularly with GIS data – but the canyon folk would throw a major conniption if they were touched. Thus the constant political battles.

  • Ron Vanderhoff

    The remaining rural and open space areas of Orange County should be treasured and preserved. Perhaps even more important is that the will of the people and the local community, especially when stated clearly and with broad support, should be upheld at all cost. Specific Plans are thoughtful, well crafted and exhaustive documents. They are not thoughtlessly created and should not be arbitrarily applied, at the whim or will of a legislator or a development lobby.
    Supervisor Spitzer has acted on behalf of the citizens in the past. I hope and trust that he reinstates the Foothill Specific Plan to its original intent and scope. Let’s preserve our remaining open spaces and enforce the will of the people.

    • Jacki Livingston

      Yes, we should treasure the remaining rural areas. But we have homeless men, women and children in this county, many of whom are senior citizens and veterans of our military. They need affordable housing. When you guys spout on about ‘the will of the people’, you mean the will of the wealthy people who can afford the overpriced cracker boxes in the area. You could not begin to care less about the other people, those who have no real hope of home ownership, who need some kind of affordable housing options. I find it ludicrous that any group of people, homeowners or not, should think that they have the right to dictate to anyone what and how they should use their own land. No where else in the country has this kind of “memememememe!” attitude. Frankly, it is pretty scary. Maybe they should rename the area “Stepford”, and get it over with.

  • Dan Songster

    When driving up the oak lined roads and looking off into the chaparral i find myself hoping that the type of development that does occur will be rural in nature (in keeping with the specific plan). I hope supervisor Spitzer and others

    can reinstate the specific plan and especially limit the removal of so many mature oak trees and such severe grading!

  • Linda May

    Thank you, Ms Sefton! “When an elected board slackens the rules for a developer pushing an incongruous project, it reneges on this compact and undermines the integrity of the community.” Well said!

    There is also the Campbell project foisted on Silverado, the institution composed of: school, gym, houses, ball fields, church, maintenance buildings, roads, curbs, even a cemetery, and more. But, oh right, it was promoted as a quaint monastery and they promised to be good neighbors, while totally ignoring what the neighbors are concerned about and destroying the neighborhood-created specific plan.

    • David Zenger

      And yet nobody from Silverado Canyon even bothered to appeal the Planning Commission approval. Strange, no?

      • Linda May

        The lack of appeal was a tragic, tragic error. The people leading the “stick to the plan” effort thought the deadline for filing was later. That is a mistake that will never happen again.

  • Tom Davidson

    Well said!!!
    The term “Specific Plan” means just that. These plans are specific to each area they cover. This means a uniqueness exists that should be protected. Our specific plans are well thought out and set boundaries that need to be adhered to- not changed to suit developers $pecific needs!