APPEALS COURT SHOOTS DOWN TRABUCO HOUSING TRACT, UPHOLDS GENERAL AND SPECIFIC PLANS
(Santa Ana, June 29, 2005) In an unusually detailed and thorough 23-page decision (pdf), a 3-judge panel has struck down the approval of a controversial 162-unit housing tract near Cook’s Corner that would have bulldozed and deforested pristine areas of Trabuco Canyon. The January 2003 approval of Saddle Crest/Creek by the county Board of Supervisors violated the County’s own general plan, wrote the justices, because it would congest rural Santiago Canyon Road beyond general plan limits, and exempt the development from environmental protection mandated by the general plan. Under California law, all development within a county must be consistent with the county’s general plan.The general plan mandates Level of Service (LOS) C on Santiago Canyon, but the environmental impact report (EIR) showed that project traffic would result in substandard LOS D or E when calculated in the manner required by the general plan, known as the “HCM” (Highway Capacity Manual) method. To get around the problem, the EIR, prepared by Rutter Development Corporation, the project applicant, recalculated the LOS using a new “V/C” method, and came up with an acceptable LOS of A or B. Rutter and the County argued that the V/C method was “more representative of actual conditions” on Santiago Canyon Road, but the Court held that the general plan requires that the HCM method be used. The Court also rejected Rutter’s contention that road fees collected from the project would fix the problem, finding no evidence that the fees would insure LOS C or better.
The general plan also mandates that all development in the County’s rural Trabuco Canyon area must comply with the Foothill Trabuco Specific Plan, a 1991 blueprint for protecting the area’s rural character and scenic natural resources. But in approving Saddle Crest/Creek, the County exempted Rutter’s project from the Specific Plan’s oak tree protections, grading limits, and open space preservation requirements that apply to all other projects. That procedure, the Court found, also violated the general plan. In fact, the project would destroy 500-1,000 mature oak and sycamore trees, some over 5 feet in trunk diameter, bury canyons under 50 feet of fill, and allow grading within preserved open space.
The Court also rejected the EIR for using too lenient a threshold for gauging the project’s impacts on wildlife. According to the EIR, the impacts would not be considered significant, and thus require mitigation, unless they pushed a species to the brink of extinction. Saddle Creek straddles the boundary line between two major reserve areas designated in the state’s Natural Communities Conservation Plan (NCCP), and state and federal officials had expressed concern that the project would block wildlife corridors connecting the two regions.
Rutter originally sought approval for its controversial project, which lies in the third County district, when that seat on the board of supervisors was vacant, after its former occupant, Todd Spitzer, was elected to the state assembly. Project opponents packed the hearing in January 2003 and urged the remaining four supervisors to delay the vote for two more weeks until Spitzer’s replacement, Bill Campbell, took office. But fifth district supervisor Tom Wilson told them that he, as board chairman, represented them.“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. Supervisors Norby, Smith, and Silva also voted for the project.
RCCF originally filed suit in February 2003, along with a formidable coalition of public interest groups: Endangered Habitats League, Sierra Club, California Native Plant Society, Sea and Sage Audubon Society, and California Oak Foundation. The groups appealed after superior court Judge Ronald L. Bauer denied their petitions. Attorneys Richard A. Derevan of Irvine and Raymond W. Johnson of Temecula represented RCCF in the appeal. EHL staff attorney Michael Fitts collaborated on the appeal, along with UCLA School of Law’s Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic under the direction of clinic co-director Sean Hecht and clinic fellow Adam Wolf. Wells Clinic students and faculty conducted legal research on issues decided in the petitioners’ favor by the Court, assisted with the brief, and helped to prepare appellate counsel Derevan for oral argument. The students attended oral argument before the appellate justices and gained valuable practical experience as they helped the petitioners win this court victory. Lisa Enochs and Laurie Martz of Modjeska Canyon and other community volunteers assisted with preparation of the 23-volume evidentiary record submitted to the Court.
Justice William Bedsworth wrote the opinion, in which Justices Eileen Moore and William Rylaarsdam concurred.
The ruling came on the heels of more good news for Trabuco Canyon. In February, the County’s toll road agency bought the 23-acre Live Oak Plaza site opposite the Cook’s Corner bar, slated for development of a gas station and retail strip, to preserve in permanent natural open space.
In March, another panel of the same appellate district court upheld the Foothill Trabuco Specific Plan against a developer’s attempt to exceed its grading limits on a 9-acre site on Hamilton Trail. The developer, Thomas Hafen, originally sought to bypass Specific Plan review of his project based on a subdivision map and rough grading plan approved in 1990, prior to enactment of the Specific Plan. When the County refused to issue a grading permit, Hafen sued, and Superior Court Judge W. Michael Hayes ordered the County to issue the grading permit. In response to pleas from Trabuco Canyon residents, third district Supervisor Bill Campbell convinced his fellow supervisors to appeal the adverse ruling. The appellate court reversed the trial court, and held that Hafen still must submit a site development plan, including new grading plans in compliance with the Specific Plan, before a grading permit could be issued.
“It’s refreshing to see that the Court has acquired the acumen to sort out these technically complicated, but very important land use cases,” said RCCF president and Trabuco resident Bruce Conn.