SUPERVISORS OK 162 HOUSES IN UNREPRESENTED TRABUCO, RCCF SUES
Credibility of South County "SCORE" Undermined, Critics Say
Joining with a coalition of other public interest organizations, RCCF has sued the County of Orange over its approval of the Saddle Crest / Saddle Creek housing tract in Trabuco Canyon. The January 28 vote came after dozens of Orange County residents waited five hours to plead with the four supervisors (Wilson, Norby, Silva, and Smith) to uphold the Foothill Trabuco Specific Plan (FTSP), enacted in 1991 to preserve Trabuco's rural character and scenic natural resources, and delay the vote until election or appointment of a fifth supervisor from the third district representing the canyons. But their patience and eloquence were rewarded with a same-day unanimous vote approving 14 pages of amendments rolling back the FTSP's landform and tree protections and paving the way for the destruction of 500 to 1,000 mature oak and sycamore trees, many exceeding five feet in trunk diameter, and the filling of canyons over 50 feet deep. The amendments also included a general "balancing" provision that would allow future approval of development that complies with only some of the FTSP regulations, while violating others.
The RCCF suit alleges that the amendments render the FTSP internally inconsistent, in violation of state law, and that the environmental impact report (EIR) for the project failed to consider the substantial future impact of the balancing provision and the "anything goes" precedent it sets. The proposed estate houses and massive landform disturbance would block a connection between the Central and proposed Southern NCCP nature reserves, according to the complaint.
RCCF joined the Endangered Habitats League, which originally filed the action on February 26, along with the Sierra Club, the Sea and Sage Chapter of the Audubon Society, the California Native Plant Society, and the California Oak Foundation.
A related suit filed by Trabuco resident Ray Chandos on February 28 also charged the County with failing to provide a fair hearing and an objective EIR. According to Chandos' complaint, Chuck Shoemaker, chief of the County's environmental planning section, recommended approval of the EIR while his wife was employed as associate principal/associate director with the firm that prepared biological studies for the EIR. Also, the project applicant, Rutter Development Corporation, privately sent a video tape depicting the project's visual impacts to members of the county planning commission, the suit alleges, illegally denying the public's right to review and comment on environmental documents.
The supervisors' willingness to gut the 11-year old FTSP clouded hopes of moderating the planned development of the south county's last major private landholding, the Rancho Mission Viejo. Under a process devised by fifth district Supervisor Tom Wilson known as "SCORE," representative committees have been working on a master plan intended to balance limited development with the preservation of needed open space. "I've had a certain level of optimism about the SCORE process," said National Audubon director Pete DeSimone, "until today." "We went through virtually the same process with the FTSP, and now we're having to come back here and persuade you to follow the rules."
"Any vote to change this FTSP would probably hurt Mr. Wilson the most with his credibility," said Huntington Beach resident Joey Racano. "How could we take anything seriously after this?"
One speaker, Linda May of Silverado, dramatized the request for representation on the board of supervisors by hanging a tea bag on the speaker's podium as a reminder of the Boston Tea Party.
The testimony appeared to annoy board chairman Wilson. "Madame Clerk, could we get the tea bag removed?" he said, and then proceeded to lecture the audience. "You are represented," said Wilson testily. "I am just as concerned about the 600 acres in Saddle Creek Saddle Crest as I am about the 25,000 acres in my district in south county." "Lack of representation is not a reason to continue this item."
Only one week later, newly-elected third district supervisor Bill Campbell was seated on the board of supervisors.
Caution Justified Over Wilson's SCORE Plan
Supervisor Tom Wilson, who has presented himself as a proponent of open space and the environment, may have shown his true colors, turning his back on his constituents, defiantly refusing their modest request for a one-week delay to allow them fair representation on the board, and siding with influential county lobbyist Lyle Overby and his destructive housing tract. Term limits in the state legislature have created a revolving door between Sacramento and Santa Ana, lubricated by developer bucks, and Wilson may have decided to follow the proven path of indentured servitude to the developers and speculators, and contempt for the public he was elected to represent, as the best route to the state capitol. In any event, the trashing of the FTSP does not augur well for SCORE and south county's last major open space, which Wilson said he cared as much about as Saddle Crest/Creek. If so, and with the political and economic stakes much higher on the Rancho project, we can expect the same SCORE when the game is over: special interests 10, public 0.
How can Orange County supervisors continue to engage in the apparent political suicide of approving massively unpopular and unwanted development projects, openly telling roomfuls of voters--and in contemptuous tones--that they're wrong, that they're selfish, and that county government knows what's best for them? These supervisors certainly wield the legal discretion to vote "no" on a proposal with such massive environmental impacts, that the people they supposedly represent overwhelmingly don't want. Such a vote would seem the politically prudent course. Yet history demonstrates that it's a simple matter of Skinnerian behavioral conditioning--this anti-public behavior is consistently rewarded. The big developer bucks flow into their campaign war chests like gum drops, and (absent major scandal) the rats invariably get re-elected to the board or scamper off to the next higher office.
The voting public needs to overcome its amnesia at election time, and apply a little negative reinforcement at the ballot box. Mr. Wilson, who proudly took full responsibility for the vote, aspires to the state assembly. Concerned citizens should express their outrage at his offensive actions, and when he comes looking for support, let him know that you remember Saddle Crest / Creek.