Backers of Controversial Trabuco Project Showered Supervisors With Campaign Dollars Prior to Key Votes, Records .Show
In the weeks and months before voting in favor of a highly unpopular housing tract, members of the .Orange County board of supervisors and one board candidate accepted thousands of dollars in campaign donations from project backers, according to campaign reports filed with the |Orange County Registrar of Voters and the |California Secretary of State.
Rutter Development Corporation, the applicant for county permission to build the 162-unit Saddle Crest and Saddle Creek projects in Trabuco Canyon, donated $1,000 each to supervisors James Silva and Chris Norby, and $1,000 to then supervisorial candidate Bill Campbell in December 2002 and January 2003, prior to a crucial January 28 vote to approve area plans, rezone the project site, and amend the Foothill Trabuco Specific Plan to relax restrictions on grading and tree preservation. |(Read Rutter's 14-Page Amendment Weakening the Foothill Trabuco Specific Plan.) The contribution to Campbell, heavily favored to win the seat vacated by former third district supervisor Todd Spitzer, was made on December 12, 2002, before the January 28 hearing date had been set. As it turned out, Campbell was elected on January 28 and did not take office until a week later.
Other donors connected with the project kicked in an additional $8,700 prior to the January 2003 vote, including financial backer Kennedy Wilson, engineering firm Hunsaker and Associates, lobbyist Lyle Overby, geotechnical consultant Leighton and Associates, and principals of HDR Engineering, the firm that helped prepare the environmental impact report.
The board did not disappoint Rutter. Although dozens of speakers from all areas of the county urged supervisors to deny the project or delay the vote until a representative from the third district in which the project is located could be seated on the board, the day-long public hearing ended in a 4-0 vote of approval. Fifth district supervisor Tom Wilson, who had accepted a September 18 donation of $1,000 from Kennedy Wilson, told the audience that he, as board chairman, adequately represented the third district, and urged his fellow board members to vote for the project. “Colleagues, I would ask for an 'aye' vote on this item based upon the testimony we've heard today, based upon the research we've all done on this project, and based upon the comments I've just made to assure you and the audience that lack of representation is not a reason to continue this item,” Wilson said.
Following the January 28 vote, RCCF along with the Endangered Habitats League, the .Sierra Club, the Sea and Sage Chapter of the Audubon Society, the California Native Plant Society, and the California Oak Foundation challenged the approvals in superior court, alleging violations of state environmental and planning law. (See |Supervisors OK 162 Houses in Unrepresented Trabuco, RCCF Sues.) Despite the lawsuit in progress, Rutter continued processing the project through the county, filing subdivision maps in August 2003. With Campbell now seated on the board, Wilson running for a seat in the state assembly, and the maps scheduled for a November 18, 2003 board vote, a second round of campaign donations occurred, totaling over $6,500, including $1,700 toward Wilson's assembly race.
Supervisors again did not disappoint Rutter. Despite public opposition, the board, this time including Campbell, approved the subdivision maps on a 5-0 vote.
Campaign contributions up to $1,400 per donor per candidate per election (through June 30 following the election) for county supervisors, and up to $3,000 for assembly candidates, are legal under county ordinance and state law, but county watchdog and Silverado resident Sherry Meddick questioned the timing of the donations. “The question is not whether it's legal, but did it influence their votes? These were not charitable donations, and there's the appearance of a coordinated effort to get around the [$1,400] limit with many donors billing Rutter for their services anyway.”
As approved by the board, the Saddle Crest/Creek projects would place suburban tracts along both sides of Live Oak Canyon Road between Cook's Corner and the Harris Grade Summit, and along the north side of Santiago Canyon Road between Cook's Corner and Modjeska Grade Road. Grading to create large flat building pads would bury canyons and cut down ridgelines 50 feet or more, and destroy between 500 and 1,000 mature oak trees, many exceeding five feet in trunk diameter.
The court hearing on RCCF's challenge to the board's approvals of the Saddle Crest/Creek approvals will take place on Friday, April 2, 2004 at 9:30 a.m. in Department CX 103 of the .Orange County Superior Court, Civil Complex Unit, located on the corner of Santa Ana Blvd. and Flower Street in Santa Ana.