Mr. Scourge

Activists remember Planning Director Thomas Mathews

Illustration by Mark DanceyWith the county's open space disappearing as fast as the deficits mount in his mismanaged agency, Orange County Planning Department Director Thomas Mathews will resign Jan. 9 after 28 years of county service.

Nothing in the New Year could make Ray Chandos happier.

"I'm glad to see him go," the longtime head of the Rural Canyons Conservation Fund says. "He's been a scourge on the county—on the canyon in particular."

The "canyon" is Trabuco Canyon, the arboreal slice of Orange County where Chandos has lived—and fought Mathews—for the past 20 years.

"There have been so many run-ins with Mr. Mathews over Trabuco Canyon," Chandos says with a sigh. "Saddleback Meadows. Saddleback Creek. Expansion of roads. Homes near St. Michael's Abbey. Homes near Ramakrishna Monastery. Expansion of shopping centers. Rancho Potrero Leadership Academy. The cutting of trees to make room for homes."

Mathews backed each of these and other projects during his career, carrying out the wishes of politicians backed almost entirely by developers. Chandos and other canyon residents fought back with lawsuits and protests—anything to stop them.

Chandos figures his first run-in with Mathews came in 1985, when Mathews—then the county's chief of land planning—helped draft the county's development vision for the Trabuco area. "We tried to delay it and get citizen input, but he blew us off and smoked it through to the [Board of] Supervisors," Chandos remembers. "They allowed little input on our part."

Mathews' work would become the Foothill Trabuco Feature Plan, and it guaranteed that much of Trabuco Canyon would be paved. He was quickly rewarded. He left the county planning department, crossing the firewall between politicians and bureaucrats to take staff positions with three of the most pro-construction supervisors in the past 50 years. Working with Bruce Nestande, Roger Stanton and Tom Riley, Mathews was able to abandon even the pretence of balanced planning.

More than any other bureaucrat in county service, Mathews used the revolving door between government and builders. Having put in his time with politicians famous for their blind acceptance of direction—and fat political contributions—from the county's powerful developers, Mathews was rewarded yet again, this time with the top job in the county's Environmental Management Agency. In 1991, he cut a deal with preservationists that seemed to ban construction in Trabuco Canyon by prohibiting the cutting of oak trees over five inches in diameter. If it seemed a major concession, Chandos wasn't convinced. "His attitude was condescending throughout the negotiations with us," Chandos says. "He'd say at meetings, 'We can't have the proceedings held up just because you don't have your act together,' even though we had all our presentations ready."

Chandos says Mathews spent the next several years doing everything in his power to undermine the new deal. He had big incentives: his office depended increasingly on fees from new development at a time when land for building projects was shrinking. Then, too, the incorporation of cities removed from Mathews' authority much of what had been county land.

Chandos figures those economic forces were behind Mathews' renewed push to develop Trabuco Canyon. He succeeded: last month, the county planning commission, relying on Mathews' staff, approved the Saddleback Creek and Meadows projects after Mathews recommended they pass an amendment severely weakening the 1991 deal—despite outraged residents.

"My opinion is that over the years, he curried the favor of the developers by recommending approval of just about any project they wanted, and that made him attractive to the Board of Supervisors to put him in the top," Chandos says. "He's a man that didn't seem to be able to say no to developers."

Servility served him well, and Mathews might have stayed in office forever, but he failed to do what his title suggested: plan. Blind to the quick collapse of new, large-scale development projects—and bowing to pressure from developers to cut their fees drastically—Mathews suddenly found himself presiding over an imploding empire. Last year, his agency clocked average losses of $500,000 per month. When that bad news became public, Mathews let two high-ranking lieutenants take the blame and agreed to their immediate removal from the department. (One has since returned.) He announced budget cuts that will quickly eliminate 39 staff positions but waited several weeks to announce his own comfortable retirement, a provision of which boosts his pension by rounding up his 28 years of service to 30.

In Orange County—where the only difference between developers and politicians is the size of their paychecks—he's likely to escape the investigation he deserves. That makes Rich Gomez, co-president of the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy, furious.

"To find out that Mathews resigned amid all this mess is absolutely outrageous," Gomez says. "There are all these improprieties, and what happens? The county gives him a golden parachute with golden shoes. We'll be burdened with his legacy."