P.O. Box 556, Trabuco Canyon, CA 92678-0556 (ruralcyn@yahoo.com)


Citizen Review Board and Planning Commission Bypassed

Despite an RCCF lawsuit challenging its January approval of a controversial housing tract in Trabuco Canyon, the County of Orange has set the stage for final bulldozing by subdividing the site's pristine oak woodlands into residential lots. Ignoring numerous protests from concerned county residents, the County's "Subdivision Committee," a panel of unelected and unaccountable county bureaucrats, including planner and canyon antagonist Frank McGill, approved the "vesting tentative tract maps" for Saddle Crest and Saddle Creek on September 17. On September 29, RCCF filed an appeal of the committee's actions to the Orange County Planning Commission.

The Saddle Crest and Saddle Creek subdivisions proposed by Irvine based Rutter Development Corporation will blanket both sides of scenic Live Oak Canyon Road with mass-graded urban sprawl, destroying from 500 to 1,000 oak trees, many over 5 feet in trunk diameter, and fill canyons over 50 feet deep. In approving the "vesting" subdivision maps, which legally lock in place the 162 residential lots, the county ignored requests from state and federal wildlife regulators to eliminate and reconfigure some lots to provide wildlife movement corridors between two major subregions of the Natural Communities Conservation Plan (NCCP). The RCCF appeal cites an October 2002 letter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game stating that "the project precludes effective southern subregional conservation planning by impairing north to south wildlife movement and connectivity between the Central and Coastal Subregions." The county is legally responsible for development of the NCCP in Orange County.
The subdivision committee also denied requests to refer the proposed tract maps to the local Foothill Trabuco Specific Plan Review Board, a 5-citizen panel charged by the Foothill Trabuco Specific Plan with advising county agencies "on all discretionary actions of the County of Orange" in the Specific Plan area, which includes the project site. Even though the maps were not filed with the county until August 19, 2003, McGill argued that Rutter had "discussed" them with the review board last October and November.

Then, following RCCF's appeal to the planning commission, county planning director Bryan Speegle said in an October 14th letter that the appeal should bypass the commission and go directly to the board of supervisors. Although, wrote Speegle, county code provides that such appeals "will normally be heard by the Planning Commission and then the decision of the Planning Commission can be appealed to the Board of Supervisors," a 1997 code amendment allows direct forwarding to the supervisors "if the Director determines that the public interest would be better served." RCCF was charged $385 to file the appeal, but bypassing the commission would better serve the public interest, wrote Speegle, because it would "save the County and the public time and money by avoiding double appeal hearings."

In February, RCCF joined 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 in a suit against the county after it approved sweeping amendments of the Foothill Trabuco Specific Plan exempting Saddle Crest and Creek from grading limits and tree protection provisions that have applied to all other Trabuco Canyon development since 1991.

County supervisors will hold a public hearing of the appeal on Tuesday, November 18, at 9:30 a.m. in the County Hall of Administration at the corner of Santa Ana Blvd. and Broadway in Santa Ana. Supervisors could vote to grant the appeal, or refer the proposed subdivision back to the review board, subdivision committee, and planning commission for modification. If supervisors vote to deny the appeal, as recommended by McGill in a report, opponents will again have no alternative but the courts.


Why the county railroad job to avoid the review board and planning commission, rushing this subdivision map directly to the board of supervisors? The board, after all, is a policy making body with a lengthy agenda. Speakers (unless they are developers) are aggressively rushed through their testimony and limited by an ever expanding array of technological gadgetry to 3-minute sound byte presentations. Board members often talk on the telephone, step off the dais, or confer with aides during this limited public testimony. They rarely crack a code book or unroll a map. Most of them probably don't even know where the projects they vote on are located. This is why the review of subdivision maps normally takes place at the planning commission, following an even more painstaking review and detailed recommendation from the local review board.

Director Speegle's reasoning for bypassing the normal process bespeaks a cynicism of his agency's own processes, if not a disturbing prescience of the outcome. First, "double appeal hearings" would only occur if the normal appeal to the planning commission failed to resolve the dispute. Does he know in advance how the votes would turn out? Second, wouldn't his "save double hearings" rationale apply to any subdivision appeal? Why, then, does county ordinance provide at all for the two-tier appeal process? Finally, isn't the "public" interest represented by the public appellants in this case? They're paying the appeal fees, and saying they want to go to the planning commission first. Do they really need "big brother" telling them what's in their best interests?

Now this isn't the first procedural shenanigan Rutter and his county puppets have pulled to jam this project through. Some readers may recall that last December, just two days after the planning commission originally approved the area plans and specific plan amendments, Rutter appealed his own planning commission victory to the board of supervisors. RCCF's appeal would come two weeks later, but Rutter seemed in a hurry to get the final board OK before a new supervisor could be elected to fill the vacant seat for the third district where the project just happens to be located. A compliant county staff took care of the scheduling details and attendant rationalizations, with the final result that the new supervisor, Bill Campbell, was prevented from (or, as some suspect, escaped from) voting on the controversial project.

Concerned citizens should contact Campbell, who this time will have to vote on Saddle Crest/Creek, and the other supervisors, and ask them:

  • What's the big rush for this project? Why didn't it go to the specific plan review board for its recommendation? Why shouldn't it go to the review board and planning commission for a thorough, technical review with ample opportunity for public input and comment?
  • Do you support the destruction of 500 to 1,000 mature oak and sycamore trees in Trabuco Canyon and filling canyons 50 feet deep?
  • Do you support the NCCP agreement that the county signed? If so, how can you vote to lock in urban sprawl residential lots that "preclude" effective conservation planning?

Then, attend the public hearing on Tuesday, November 18, 2003, 9:30 a.m., Santa Ana Blvd. and Broadway, Santa Ana, and demand answers to these questions.

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