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Photo by Tenaya HillsThe howling still haunts Jack Eidt.
An avid hiker, Eidt is no stranger to the cry of coyotes, but this—this Hound of the Baskervilles meets funeral dirge was different. Although it has been nearly two decades since the construction of the Pacific Hills subdivision in Mission Viejo, he still remembers bulldozers scraping the lush riparian streambed and pristine hills near Oso and Marguerite.
"A massive population of coyotes lived in this area," he said. "And when the grading began, hundreds of them would gather every night and scream for hours. Perhaps I was projecting my own pain, but their cries were dirge-like, a lament for something lost. Night after night, the screams grew in intensity until they just stopped."
Eidt does not want this mournful chorus repeated in Rancho Mission Viejo, home to the last undeveloped coastal foothills in south Orange County. An urban planner who has worked on many Orange County projects including the Disneyland Resort expansion, he's dismayed by the Orange County Board of Supervisors' recent approval of the Rancho Mission Viejo Project (see "A Win-Lose Solution," Nov. 24). He says the project's 14,000 homes and five million square feet of commercial space "will sprawl across the Ranch's hills, severing critical wildlife corridors, degrading air and water quality, and adding to already congested traffic in surrounding communities."
The Sierra Club, Friends of the Foothills, the Endangered Habitats League and other environmental groups are loudly protesting the project. But Eidt believes there is a better solution—one the Ranch might find attractive should its plan become bogged down in the inevitable legal battle promised by local environmental groups: the Wild Heritage Plan.
Eidt collaborated on the plan with two local activists—Paul Carlton and Jerry Collamer—who believe development and wilderness preservation do not have to be mutually exclusive. In their proposal, development would be concentrated into four interconnected urban villages. These would be "walk-able communities" with homes close to commercial and recreational areas.
Although it proposes development denser than conventional Orange County communities, Eidt claims the village concept would enhance the quality of life for residents, who could easily walk to where they work, shop or play. It would also preserve environmentally sensitive areas such as Chiquita Canyon, the Donna O'Neill Land Conservancy, the San Mateo watershed and critical wildlife corridors connecting the Cleveland National Forest to wilderness habitats as far south as Trestles Beach.
"A townhome without the town is just an overcrowded apartment," says Eidt. When neighborhoods are well designed—with easy access to stores, businesses and local parks—"it creates a memorable community with a strong sense of place." Eidt and his colleagues believe the Wild Heritage Plan would benefit everyone, including the Ranch's owners.
"It is possible to build 14,000 dwelling units and reduce the footprint," Eidt said. "We wanted to come up with a smart plan, one that addresses the needs of the Ranch's owners, reduces the traffic impact on surrounding communities, includes much needed senior and affordable housing, and still preserves Ranch's wild heritage. We believe we have done that."
On Nov. 8, Eidt and his colleagues presented their plan to the Board of Supervisors. Each was allowed to speak for three minutes—hardly sufficient to outline their proposal, Eidt admits—but even their abbreviated presentation earned praise from many in the audience. Ranch officials were on hand for the presentation, but had previously cancelled a private meeting with Eidt and Carlton. Carlton says after the Ranch received approval, Richard Broming, RMV vice president for planning and entitlement, told him other plans would no longer be considered. Broming did not return a telephone call seeking his comment for this story by press time.
Although the Ranch's plan has been approved, Eidt is not giving up. "The sad fact is for over 120 years the Ranch has kept secret the amazing wilderness within its boundaries. Most local residents have no idea what they lost when the Ranch built the communities of Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita, Ladera and the rest."
Eidt is determined to prevent the same mistake. "This is a chance to build something other than the traditional urban sprawl model," he said. "With Southern California's Mediterranean climate and striking topography, we could recreate the lovely palazzos and intimate streets of an urban village in southern Europe. . . . . People and open space are not an 'either-or' proposition. We have the unique opportunity to create a community where everyone wins."