A Win-Lose Solution

Dan Silver is no Luddite. The executivedirector of the Santa Monica-based Endangered Habitats League sees real-estate development—even in quickly vanishing natural-habitat areas—as inevitable. That's why he spent the past 13 years working with Orange County planning officials and the Rancho Mission Viejo Co. on a mass development project that will bring tens of thousands of expensive new homes to Orange County's last remaining wilderness area.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors on Nov. 8 approved the Rancho Mission Viejo project that paves the way for at least 14,000 new homes and hundreds of acres of commercial development in South County between Mission Viejo, Camp Pendleton and the Cleveland National Forest. But like the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, the Friends of the Foothills, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service—all of which are protesting the county's approval—Silver isn't celebrating.

“We've always favored a solution that is not completely opposing development but that still protects key resources,” Silver said. “Unfortunately, the county rejected that win-win solution and pretty much rubber-stamped the developer's plan. What we have now will be devastating to Orange County's natural resources.”

Six months ago, the Orange County Planning N Development Department abruptly dropped its commitment to conserve as much wilderness as possible while still allowing thousands of new homes in South County. That commitment is the State of California Natural Community Conservation Plan, which the county and the Rancho Mission Viejo Co. and other developers signed in 1993.

The original plan called for building new homes as closely together as possible—in “village-like” developments clustered around common areas that would allow much of Rancho Mission Viejo to remain undeveloped. The just-approved plan would spread homes out over the entire project area. As Silver puts it, “We got the development, but not the conservation.”

Although the Sierra Club and other environmental groups say they are planning to sue the county over the project, Silver wants to avoid the courthouse. Instead, his league's lawyers sent Chuck Shoemaker, a senior planner with the county, a letter dated Nov. 17 that argues the project's environmental-impact report (EIR) is so full of holes it “fails to meet even the most basic standards” of state law. The letter states that the EIR “does not appear to propose dedicating or preserving a single acre of the over-22,000-acre project site for true habitat-conservation purposes.” The protected species threatened by the project include the California mountain lion, the California gnatcatcher, the Riverside fairy shrimp and the arroyo toad.

The letter also claims that the county's EIR “ignores a critical investigation of numerous fatally toxic substances potentially present on the project site as a result of literally decades of use by TRW, Northup Grumman and Ford Aerospace for rocket and weapons testing.” When the bulldozers begin digging, they could uncover hazardous chemicals like perchlorate, an ingredient in rocket fuel.

Meanwhile, the county's EIR uses a definition of “open space” that includes “swimming pools, basketball courts, tennis courts, outside advertising structures and child-care facilities.” Even the most environmentally sensitive areas of the project site—like Chiquita Canyon and the San Mateo Creek, which is the only undeveloped watershed south of Ventura County—would be scarred by earthmovers. The current plan allows those areas to be developed with “golf courses, clubhouse facilities and restaurants.”

Shoemaker did not return a telephone call seeking his comment for this story by press time.

Silver praises the Rancho Mission Viejo Co. for its “historical responsible stewardship” of Orange County's last wilderness area. He says he understands the company's economic need to stop ranching and start home building. But he doesn't understand why, after 13 years of working with environmental groups, the county betrayed its commitment to protect as much of Orange County's last remaining wilderness area as possible.

“We've been working on this since 1993, so you can understand how disappointed we are,” Silver said. “This is a complete breach of faith. The county has absolutely failed to deliver on its promises. We had plenty of time to find a good solution here. But at the end of the day, the opportunity was missed, and the end result will be tragic for Orange County.”


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