The Norbertine Code

Monks and canyon dwellers go mano a mano in Silverado Canyon

The Norbertine Code

The roads into Silverado Canyon's rustic, tucked-away Eden crawl east, away from the foothills of Orange and into the Santa Ana Mountains. The canyon people know each turn and can name the ghosts of those who once walked their dusty curves—and, along the way, built a little paradise among the oak trees, California poppies and Mariposa lilies.

Canyon people are stoked by a hand-me-down pride, the kind that burns like a mule-headed sun on an August afternoon. And whether one is warmed by their pride or scorched by the fire depends on where one stands along the roads.

Do you stand in God's country, a vast but vulnerable tract of dirt and wood, crawling with wildlife, and dappled with native plants and ancient creek beds, all desperate for man's protection? Or do you stand in eternal fields ripe for the harvest of 21st-century homes and a patch of land that God's priests believe He has given them to build a sanctuary away from the heavy footstep of modernity and its ever-deafening roar?

Kenneth M. Ruggiano
Not in our back yard
Kenneth M. Ruggiano
Not in our back yard

Ed Amador—the 57-year-old president of the Canyon Land Conservation Fund, a nonprofit group of about 400 members dedicated to preserving the wildlands of the Santa Ana Mountains and canyons—knows where he stands. The Silverado Canyon resident's pride burns hot for the history and heritage of the place he has called home for nearly 20 years. And it has been rekindled by what one group of canyon residents says is the latest incursion of outsiders.

In January, the Norbertine Fathers of Orange, an order of Catholic priests that has long practiced the monastic life at St. Michael's Abbey on El Toro Road near Cook's Corner in unincorporated Silverado Canyon, bought the property commonly known as Holtz Ranch, where, in the early 1900s, Joseph Holtz built his home near the old Carbondale mine, and where his family, over the course of 80 years, grew fruits, nuts, corn and barley; tended 160 bee colonies; and raised turkeys.

The sparse remains of the ranch, including an old storage building and stacked-stone pillars, stand among desolate fields and woodlands, where the Norbertines want to build a new abbey and high school, complete with athletic fields, guest houses and a cemetery for monastery members, a sacred space carved from the serene landscape at 27977 Silverado Canyon Rd. They believe they have a sacramental connection to the property, as priests used to say Mass on Sundays in a mission chapel that was on the Holtz land, a mission that was a part of St. Cecilia's parish in Tustin.

Amador, a barrel-chested man with brown eyes often hidden by sunglasses, speaks with a canyon man's passion as he says a faux-rustic abbey bustling with believers would bring a curse on the land instead of a blessing from heaven.

"It's real simple," he says. "It's a severe injury and fatality, a cancer the county's been put on alert about."

Indeed, it has. The Canyon Land Conservation Fund and other vocal, anti-development canyon groups are raising awareness at public meetings, putting civic officials on notice that they've won other wars against development along Silverado Canyon Road, and they're ready to tangle again.

In 1977, anti-development groups beat back developers seeking to stick more than 400 mobile homes on the site. A developer in 1989 dropped roughly $1.25 million into plans for 167 homes before turning tail and running.

In 1999, Las Vegas developer Marnell Corrao, which developed the Wynn and Bellagio resorts, bought 320 acres at a reported $5 million, with designs to build 12 mansions on about 70 acres. Court battles ensued when Trabuco Canyon resident Ray Chandos, who, at 62 years old, has lived in the canyons for nearly 30 years, led his Rural Canyon Conservation Fund in filing a successful civil complaint, saying the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) did not properly address impacts on water quality and coastal sage scrub mitigation. A supplemental EIR was drafted, but soon afterward, anti-development residents cited a letter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that said there was evidence of the federally endangered Southwestern Arroyo Toad, a three-inch, brown-and-cream-colored critter that breeds in water and was thought to be extinct in the region.

What dust-up over development would be complete without critters getting caught up in the crosshairs? The developer said earlier studies showed only the toad's larvae in the area. They had a friend in Bill Campbell, supervisor for the county's Third District, which includes the Holtz Ranch, who reportedly said he heard that critics of the development may have planted the larvae.

The county pushed ahead, as the Board of Supervisors, with Campbell presiding, approved the project in 2007. The canyon people lost an appeal in San Diego Superior Court. The developers eventually pulled up stakes and sold more than 120 acres to the Norbertines. According to the most recent figures from the Orange County's Assessor Department, the patch of land is valued at more than $6.1 million.

It's a fight for one of the last remaining pieces of Orange County's wildlands. Developers have bludgeoned anti-development activists recently—Dana Point approved the desecration of oceanfront land in 2004 so that developer Headlands Reserve LLC could erect a gated tract of multimillion-dollar homes—who, though bloodied, punch with as much strength as they can muster. In the highlands surrounding Fullerton, the vocal Friends of Coyote Hills group has for years tried to stop Chevron's Pacific Coast Homes from building the controversial West Coyote Hills estate-homes project. The Fullerton City Council's most recent action on the matter was to send the development agreement to voters in November. But this time, the canyon people insist they're ready.

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