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The Norbertine Code

Monks and canyon dwellers go mano a mano in Silverado Canyon

Following Eadie's lead, Mike Huff, a certified arborist and forester, attempted to quell concerns that Rutter Development's project ties a yellow noose around 151 oak trees. Huff told the commission that most of the trees in the area were damaged in recent fires and not good candidates for relocation. "Oaks can be relocated, but it's not an ecological or really a very humane thing to do to the oak, to be honest," he argued. The developer's proposal includes preserving 75 percent of the current oaks and planting 281 replacement trees, so that in 10 years, the area would boast 2,000 healthy trees.

Planting trees isn't the only way Rutter Development has offered to help county officials. According to the county Registrar of Voters, the developer pitched in $1,700 to Patricia Bates' 2010 campaign for election in the Fourth District, as well as $1,800 each—the maximum allowed under law—to Supervisors Shawn Nelson and Janet Nguyen in their most recent campaigns and Spitzer, who rolled over Deborah Pauly to take the Third District seat on the heels of his 2010 firing as a senior prosecutor in the Orange County district attorney's office.

Spitzer, whose oversight will include the proposed project site, did not return phone messages seeking comment about development in the canyons. But a canyon man who has been more than willing to speak out about Rutter Development's project was at the Planning Commission meeting to rebuke Eadie and Saddle Crest.

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

Chandos also appeared at the commission meeting, as though he were a legendary prizefighter, and delivered several haymakers on behalf of his group, which first petitioned the county to establish what became the Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan. "The proposal before you is a case of the tail wagging the dog, the tail being a single development project and the dog being the entire Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan and the Orange County General Plan," Chandos said.

Speaking for many canyon residents, Chandos argued that Rutter Development's proposal is a radical, far-reaching overhaul of these longstanding policies. They fear such amendments would open the door for developers to run roughshod over the rest of the county's open spaces. "I can't imagine a better recipe for widespread planning anarchy and confusion," Chandos told the commission.

Shortly after the meeting, Chandos admitted that the long battle against development in the canyons has wearied him and others who continue to fight. "It's very time-consuming," he says. "We're all paying for it in time taken from work, the lawyer bills. We've got lawsuits going. We have to sue the county all the time. We have made progress in getting around 1,000 acres since the plan was passed, so that's been encouraging."

* * *

The canyon roads are busy now, as summer invites visitors to cycle, hike or drive along the same routes laid down long ago by those who shared the same love for the land, with its faithful landscapes and surprising treasures. The long days awake to songs of native birds and the rustlings of predators and prey. Broiling afternoons buzz and moan with the sound of motorcycles and a steady stream of cars.

Smisek says canyon people are a unique breed. Sure, they scrap as though they're wildcats when it comes to development issues, but when a disaster such as flooding or fire hits, they come together quicker than anyone else he knows. But anti-development folks have a Chicken Little attitude about any talk of development, he says. "It's the old 'not in my back yard' attitude," he explains. "Now that we're here, we don't want anybody else here."

As evening falls on the canyons, their visitors, renewed by the life-giving panoramas and discovered-again landmarks, head home, perhaps to the coast or the sprawl of their native cities. The tired sun drowns in the west as the canyons flicker with headlights, until the footfall of man quiets and the night creatures live again.

Then Smisek asks a question that can be answered a thousand ways—or no way at all.

"Save the canyons?" he asks. "What are we saving them from?"

This article appeared in print as "The Great Monk Invasion: Does a Norbertine monastery in Silverado Canyon spell doom for God's country?"

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