PLANNING COMMISSION STRIKES “RURAL” AND “NATURAL” FROM CANYON PLANS, FINAL BOARD VOTE OCTOBER 2
Despite intense public opposition, the Orange County Planning Commission approved a major overhaul of two master planning documents for the canyon areas, the Orange County General Plan, and the Foothill Trabuco Specific Plan (FTSP), including deleting a requirement that new development be “rural” in character. The changes were made at the request of Rutter Development, a large campaign contributor to county supervisors, whose president, Dave Eadie, said the FTSP “just doesn’t work” because not enough houses have been built in the canyons since the plan’s enactment in 1991.
(Click here for audio of the public hearing).
The July 25 plan overhaul also repeals limits on grading along Santiago Canyon Road, allows developers to cut down formerly protected healthy oak trees throughout Trabuco Canyon and replace them with acorns, and raises the allowable traffic volume on Santiago Canyon Road from 800 to 2,720 vehicles per hour. Rutter needs the plan revisions to legitimize a mass-graded 65-unit housing tract, “Saddle Crest,” that he proposes along Santiago Canyon Road north of Cook’s Corner, according to an environmental impact report (EIR) for the project. The Planning Commission approved Rutter’s housing tract and plan overhaul on a 4-1 vote, with commissioners Nguyen, Adams, Hall, and Brose in favor, and Irons against.
Where the FTSP requires developers to preserve a certain amount of “natural open space” within each project, Rutter persuaded commissioners to delete the word “natural,” so that he can now count graded areas, such as manufactured slopes, as open space. Repeal of the FTSP grading limits was needed because Rutter’s project includes 13,000 cubic yards of grading per house and 70-foot-high manufactured slopes to create flat, suburban style building pads, far exceeding the existing 3,000-cubic-yard and 10-foot limits.
Repeal of the FTSP’s requirement that healthy oak trees be preserved or transplanted will allow Rutter to cut down and replace with acorns 151 oak trees, most listed in “good” or “fair” health, some with trunks over 36 inches in diameter.
The county General Plan requires the traffic “level of service” on Santiago Canyon Road to be maintained at “C” or better, on a scale of “A” through “F”, as computed according to the Highway Capacity Manual (HCM) for two-lane rural roads. With the road already operating at a substandard “D” level, according to the Saddle Crest EIR, the project could not be built without widening Santiago Canyon Road. To solve this problem, Rutter convinced the Planning Commission to throw out the HCM and instead compute the road’s capacity using the “volume-to-capacity” (V/C) method for urban streets. While the more complex HCM method takes into account the geometry, slope, volume of trucks, passing ability and other factors unique to rural two-lane roads, the V/C method simply dictates a fixed level of service “C” capacity of 1,360 vehicles per hour per lane for all roads. By changing to the V/C yardstick, Santiago Canyon Road’s existing level of service instantly jumps from “D” to “A,” easily accommodating more traffic from Saddle Crest and other developments. “It’s still a two-lane road,” Silverado resident Brett Peterson told Commissioners. “This isn’t going to make it four lanes.”
Another Rutter-instigated General Plan Amendment applies countywide and allows a development to be found “consistent” with the General Plan or applicable specific plan even if that development does not comply with all of that plan’s goals and objectives. In addition to the FTSP, specific plans in Coto de Caza, North Tustin, and the Silverado Modjeska areas would be affected by Rutter’s General Plan amendment.
Several speakers objected to changing the rules to fit Rutter’s project. “This project turns planning on its head,” said Gloria Sefton, co-founder of the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy, “and completely disregards the value of what the FTSP has protected for Orange County.” “I built my home and complied with the Specific Plan,” said Trabuco resident Rod Van Sickle, “and I don’t understand how a developer with money and power can come in here and do whatever he wants.” Commissioners sat poker-faced throughout the hearing, offering no responses to public speakers, and appearing to have made up their minds from the beginning.
The County approved a smaller version of Saddle Crest in 2003, including similar FTSP amendments, but it was shot down in 2005 by a lawsuit brought by RCCF, Endangered Habitats League, the Sierra Club, Sea and Sage Audubon Society Chapter, California Native Plant Society, and the California Oaks Foundation after the appellate court held that the project violated the General Plan’s level of service policy for Santiago Canyon Road and improperly amended the FTSP. The court also awarded plaintiffs their attorney fees.
The Commission’s July 25 recommendations now pass to the Orange County Board of Supervisors for final action on October 2 in Santa Ana at the County Hall of Administration, 10 Civic Center Plaza. For an online petition to county supervisors, go to http://signon.org/sign/orange-county-supervisors?source=c.fwd&r_by=860618