The Norbertine Code

Monks and canyon dwellers go mano a mano in Silverado Canyon

But not all canyon folks are wild-eyed natives with a flower in one hand and a pitchfork in the other. Smisek says there are three groups of people in the canyons, the largest being the kind who have a live-and-let-live attitude and had moved there to get away from city life and its politics. That group is flanked on one side by a small but vocal association of environmentalists, and on the other by what Smisek believes are "reasonable thinkers," those who would fight against the likes of Starbucks and Wal-Mart, but have no problem with new homes that fit the landscape or businesses that could bring life back to the quaint downtowns.

An owner of 15 acres himself, Smisek says he's neither anti-environment nor pro-development. He just wants a return to the old days, when the canyons were bustling with community-oriented businesses and new neighbors who moved in for the same reason—country living in Orange County's back yard.

And the Norbertines will likely make great neighbors, says Smisek, who has visited the abbey at El Toro Road. "It's not that they don't have a track record in this area," he says. "It's absolutely landscaped. It's quiet and serene. They're going to build some stuff a little bit bigger, but they're peaceful. They're not about raising hell. They're trying to blend in and be harmonious. . . . They're going to be good neighbors, and they want to do the right thing."

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

* * *

Still, while the Norbertines say their move is motivated by geological shifts to their property, many canyon residents see them playing a game of musical chairs, as the noise of Orange County chases the monks to a place of solace.

"When the Saddle Creek-Saddle Crest development threatened their area, they went out and marched and protested development around them, that they were there first and had a view and didn't want that ruined," recalls Peterson. "And we're telling them that we have a rustic community. Please listen to us. Please don't impact that. And then they send their attorney, and we get no-trespassing signs everywhere. I'm not in a position now to feel for them the way they would want a neighbor to because they're not being neighborly."

Irvine-based Rutter Development Co. wants to build 65 homes at 18514 Santiago Canyon Rd., northwest of the intersection of Live Oak Canyon and El Toro roads, a tractor drive from the abbey. The project, which is under review by the county, is now simply called Saddle Crest and would gobble nearly 114 acres, with roughly 80 acres designated as open space.

The project was originally called Saddle Crest-Saddle Creek (with a proposed 187 homes) and was part of the old 4-S Ranch owned by Erwood Edgar, an old-timer who had left his imprint on the planning documents for the canyon areas, the earliest of which was the Foothill Corridor Plan. After Edgar died, the ranch was passed on to his son, who sold it to Texas-based land speculator Asset Recovery Fund in 1999.

The speculator proposed developing a project known as "Santiago Land Holdings" but fled when the canyon people squared up to fight, ultimately selling to Rutter Development, which ambled in with a 187-unit project, including 46 homes set for Saddle Crest along Santiago Canyon Road and the remainder, known as Saddle Creek, located along both sides of Live Oak Canyon Road. More than 1,000 mature oak trees would have been destroyed, Rural Canyon Conservation Fund's Chandos says, some with 6-foot-thick trunks.

The county's planning commission approved the project in December 2002, when there was a vacancy on the Board of Supervisors—specifically, the Third District seat that oversees the area where the project is located. Todd Spitzer had left the seat open following his successful election to the state Assembly.

Rutter Development's project went to the Board of Supervisors and was approved in January 2003 without a representative from the district in which the project sits. Chandos and a gang of environmentalist groups, including the Endangered Habitats League, challenged the board's decision and lost in Orange County Superior Court, but they later won in the 4th District Court of Appeals; the judges there agreed that approval of the project was flawed because both it and a proposed amendment to the Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan were inconsistent with the county's General Plan.

The judges found that the project would cause an unpermissible increase in traffic on Santiago Canyon Road, that the specific plan amendment would've relaxed regulations otherwise applicable to the project, and that the EIR failed to properly mitigate the "significant impact" of construction interference from noise, supply depots and vehicle staging areas. So Rutter Development sold the Saddle Creek portion of the project to the Land Conservancy and the Orange County Transit Authority.

Was it another victory for the anti-development canyon people? Yes, but in Dave Eadie, the president of Rutter Development who has more than 40 years in planning and land-development experience, they may have run up against someone just as stubborn as they are.

Suited, booted and speaking with the calm cadence of an executive who wasn't at his first planning rodeo, the syrupy-voiced Eadie attempted on May 23 to charm the planning commission into seeing that a series of proposed amendments to the Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan and the county's General Plan would help public officials balance development and environmental preservation. The most controversial amendment may be one that deletes the word "natural" in relation to the determination of the 66 percent open-space requirement and allows for development grading in areas designed as open space.

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