County Hid Endangered Silverado Toad, Residents Say
(Santa Ana, July 2007) A July 2007 report to the Orange County Planning Commission withheld damaging information about an endangered species of toad inhabiting land near a proposed Silverado housing project, according to canyon residents.
The charges surfaced at a July 25 public hearing in Santa Ana on the Silverado Canyon Ranch project after canyon residents found out that the report author, county planning Director Tim Neely, had previously received a letter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) warning that the endangered Arroyo Toad had been documented in Silverado Creek, adjacent to the project site, and was highly likely to inhabit the project site itself. Any development should be coordinated with USFWS, the letter said, to comply with the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ESA could require the developer to redesign the project to avoid harming or destroying the fragile toad, previously believed to have been completely extirpated from the Santa Ana River watershed, which includes Silverado and Santiago Creeks. Although the letter was dated June 6, it received no mention in the July 25 environmental report to the planning commission. In fact, Neely wrote “the arroyo toad is not present on the project site,” and “the project would not have an indirect effect on arroyo toads,” citing surveys prepared by the project applicant, CCRC Farms of Las Vegas. But according to the June 6 USFWS letter, the applicant-sponsored toad surveys “were inadequate to determine that arroyo toads are absent from the property or the surrounding environment,” and USFWS officials believe there is a “high likelihood” that the toads are present on the project site.
Erin Ganahl, attorney for RCCF, gave commissioners a copy of the USFWS letter.
The county originally approved the project in 2003, but, following an RCCF lawsuit, the superior court held it up, ordering the county to correct the water quality study in the environmental impact report (EIR), recirculate the EIR, and hold public hearings. In April of 2005, shortly after the revised EIR was released, zoologist and arroyo toad expert Robert Haase discovered and photographed arroyo toads in Silverado Creek near the project site, filing reports with the USFWS. By June of 2005, USFWS had informed the county of the discovery. Canyon residents then asked the county to include the toad information in the EIR and recirculate it, noting that state law requires that newly-discovered information be added to EIRs prior to final approval. But the county refused to do so.
At the July 25 public hearing, the county planning staff joined the applicant in urging the commission to approve the EIR without the arroyo toad information, claiming that the court order limited them to revising the water quality study only, and again insisting that no toads inhabited the project site.
“I have no faith in the County process,” longtime Silverado resident and county watchdog Sherry Meddick told commissioners. “Something is wrong with [the] planning [department].”
Some speakers questioned why the applicant had waited three years after the court order to seek county recertification of its EIR. “There’s Measure M funds available for acquiring new parkland now, and the developer is trying to inflate the price of the land,” Orange Hills Task Force member Carol Mintzer told the commission. “Don’t be a pawn in this extortion scheme.”
The 2003 approvals placed on hold by the court will, if reactivated, allow mass grading on 68 acres of the historic 318-acre Holtz Ranch, located at the entrance to rustic Silverado Canyon, adjoining Silverado Creek, and within the boundaries of the Cleveland National Forest. The 800,000 cubic yards of grading would cut into the surrounding hillsides, creating 70-foot high manufactured slopes to accommodate 12 large flat building pads for 4,000-square-foot houses. Additional grading and building on the remaining acreage could occur later.
Despite opposition from every public speaker, including representatives of RCCF and other organizations, the commission ended up voting 4-1 for approval of the EIR, with fourth district commissioner and chairman David Zenger voting no.
According to Meddick, the county planning department and planning commission have become increasingly cozy with project applicants and hostile to the public in recent years, even by Orange County standards. Neely and his staff slant reports to favor building projects, and the commission has been stacked with a staunch pro-building majority, Meddick said. She also pointed to the three-minute time limit, enforced by flashing yellow and red lights, placed on public speakers at the July 25 hearing, but unlimited time and no flashing lights for developers and county staff members. In fact, Meddick was not permitted to finish her nine-minute testimony until two other public speakers waiting in line agreed to “donate” their three minutes to her. And after the public hearing was closed, the applicant was given unlimited time to rebut the testimony of project opponents, while Meddick and others were shut down when they tried to respond to the applicant’s statements. “Here in Orange County, it’s the red carpet for the developers and speculators, but the bum’s rush for the public. Even if they can’t show common courtesy to county residents who took time from their jobs and families to come here and do their civic duty, you would think this project is important enough that they would want to hear all the testimony in order to make the best possible decision,” Meddick said.
The project now goes to the county board of supervisors for final approval.
CCRC seems hell bent on getting a quick paper entitlement on the land in order to inflate its "fair market value" and grab more Measure M acquisition money. The county seems equally hell bent on helping them do it. But the scheme is running so far afoul of state and federal environmental law that it may just backfire and land them in court again. Their previous contempt for the public cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and a four-year delay of their project. Yet, incredibly, they're now poised to do it all over again because they stubbornly refuse to update and recirculate their EIR, as the law clearly requires, when important new information comes in. In this case, it's the good news that the arroyo toad, thought to have been completely wiped out by rampant urbanization of its habitat, has found one last refuge in the Santa Ana River watershed near this project. The EIR is needed simply to see how the development might impact the toad, and how the impact might be mitigated or avoided.
The arroyo toad is there--no one can deny it. So concerned citizens should contact their county supervisors and ask why our tax supported planners are in denial of the obvious. Wouldn't it be in everyone's best interests to do what's right--revise and recirculate the EIR for the Silverado Ranch project?
First District Supervisor Janet Nguyen, (714) 834-3110, fax (714) 834-5754
Second District Supervisor John Moorlach, (714) 834-3220, fax (714) 834-6109
Third District Supervisor Bill Campbell, (714) 834-3330, fax (714) 834-2786
Fourth District Supervisor Chris Norby, (714) 834-3440, fax (714) 834-2045
Fifth District Supervisor Pat Bates, (714) 834-3550, fax (714) 834-2670
The EIR will go to the board of supervisors for final certification on September 11, 2007. Please bookmark and check this web page for any updates on the upcoming board hearing.