Court says Saddle Crest housing plan in O.C. is a no-go
Showing consistency with other land use decisions in Trabuco Canyon, Orange County Superior Court Judge Steven L. Perk in August ruled in favor of a coalition of community and public interest groups, upholding important planning documents and rejecting Orange County’s approval of the controversial 65-unit housing tract known as Saddle Crest that would have bulldozed pristine hillsides and wiped out majestic oak forests along rural Santiago Canyon Road north of Cook’s Corner.
“Although our elected officials completely let the public down by approving this project and the disastrous plan amendments, Judge Perk's thoughtful review and ruling restore environmental protections so that the rural canyons can continue to be a special place in Orange County,” said Gloria Sefton, co-founder of Saddleback Canyons Conservancy, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Supervisors helped the proposal along
In a single unanimous decision last October, Orange County Supervisors approved the proposal by developer and campaign contributor Rutter Santiago LP, simultaneously clearing the way for Saddle Crest and future developments by weakening or repealing longstanding rules protecting the canyons’ rural character and scenic natural resources.
“The court zeroed right in on the problem with what Rutter and the County tried to do,” said Ray Chandos, secretary-treasurer of Rural Canyons Conservation Fund, another plaintiff in the lawsuit. “You can’t have County policies, general and specific plans, with high and noble goals and objectives, and then turn around and approve a project that completely undermines them.”
These rules, embodied in the 1991 Foothill Trabuco Specific Plan (FTSP), limited mass grading of hillsides and canyons, protected mature oak trees like those overhanging scenic Live Oak Canyon Road, and mandated preservation of certain open space in its natural state. At Rutter’s behest, county supervisors repealed grading limits, allowed removal of more than 150 mature oak trees on the site—some mature ones with trunks more than 3 feet in diameter—and permitted “open space” to include manufactured slopes between rows of houses.
Changing the General Plan
The supervisors also amended the Orange County General Plan, raising the traffic limits on Santiago Canyon Road in order to legitimize the excessive traffic from Rutter’s development.
Additionally, the supervisors inserted a “precedence clause” into the Orange County General Plan allowing them to approve other projects throughout the County even when they do not comply with all provisions of the general plan or applicable specific plan. In his written order, Judge Perk ruled that “[t]he amendment to include the precedence clause violates the State planning and zoning law by disregarding the mandatory and clearly expressed goals and objectives.”
“This precedence clause had the potential to impact more than just the canyonlands and would essentially mean all future developments could ignore adopted planning documents, like the County General Plan. We are thankful Judge Perk understood the ramifications of this clause,” said Jean H. Watt, president of Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks, also listed as a plaintiff in the suit.
Judge Perk ruled that the county improperly disguised traffic impacts on Santiago Canyon Road because its environmental impact report considered only a small segment adjacent to the Rutter project out of the entire 11.8-mile route. “Bottlenecks already occur on the canyon road before the increased traffic from this project,” he wrote.
Natural open space should be preserved
The order also invalidated the FTSP and General Plan amendments as inconsistent with those plans’ goals “to manage and ‘preserve’ mature oak trees, [and] natural open space,” limit grading, and insure minimum lot sizes. Instead, “[t]he development in question reduces ‘open space’ to less than 50% and permits a ten fold increase in the amount of grading,” noted the court.
This is not the first time Rutter’s plans for development in the rural canyons have been negated. In 2003, County supervisors approved 35 houses for Rutter on the Saddle Crest site as part of a larger 162-unit project that was ultimately invalidated by an appellate court for similar plan violations.
Saddleback Canyons Conservancy; Rural Canyons Conservation Fund; Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks; Audubon California; and the California Native Plant Society were the plaintiffs in this most recent case. The plaintiffs were represented by Ellison Folk and Edward Schexnayder of Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, a law firm that specializes in land use, natural resource, environmental, and governmental law.
Photo: An area that the Saddle Crest housing plan would have dotted with homes. Credit: Rich Gomez