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.