By a 4-1 vote, the Orange County Planning Commission Monday approved use of a privately owned 101-acre parcel surrounded by Caspers Wilderness Park for a biomedical research and development facility.
Opponents expressed fears that helicopter and truck noise would harm wild animals and plants, that traffic generated by 1,100 employees would increase the danger on twisting Ortega Highway and that toxic materials would pose a risk.
The Nichols Institute, with headquarters in San Juan Capistrano, leased the property six years ago and will soon buy it, said Dr. Albert Nichols, who heads the institute. Plans for the new facility must still be approved by the Board of Supervisors.
Nichols said the institute serves hundreds of hospitals across the nation by performing diagnostic tests in such areas as thyroid deficiency in children and breast cancer.
The institute obtained a use permit in 1981, but because of problems that included obtaining water for the property, the two-year permit expired. In the meantime, the wilderness park expanded across Ortega Highway, east of San Juan Capistrano, and surrounded the building site.
Site of 2 Maulings
The 7,500-acre park this year was the site of two maulings of young children by mountain lions. The park was closed until at least Jan. 2 after the latest mauling last month. When it reopens, county officials plan to limit children to an area near the entrance to the park and to require at least two adults in parties using hiking trails. The part of the park where the Nichols Institute would locate its buildings has not been developed.
Nichols and his consultant on the project, Carol Hoffman, told planning commissioners that the proposed facility would be designed to fit in with the natural surroundings and that the buildings would be shielded from public view.
Commissioner Thomas Moody said he visited the site Monday, listened to the helicopter noise and concluded that it would not be a problem. The only commissioner voting against the project was Alvin Coen.
In their approval, commissioners allowed up to seven helicopter departures and seven arrivals a day but limited flights to one departure and one arrival between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.
Sue Moran, president of the Volunteer Naturalists of Caspers Park, praised Nichols and Hoffman for "their great sensitivity to the environment" but opposed putting "this kind of facility in the middle of Caspers Park."
"Caspers is a very precious resource which must be preserved," she said, a "nearby escape to nature" for tens of thousands of Orange County residents a year.
She said that although Nichols was sensitive to her group's concerns, it was wrong for the county "to let one man fulfill his dream at the expense of the future of Orange County."
Virginia Chester of the Sea and Sage chapter of the National Audubon Society, also opposed the facility, citing the "jarring incompatibility with a wilderness park and a biomedical research facility."
County Environmental Management Agency planners had recommended approving construction of up to 23 buildings, which will be built in stages on the property, with final development expected around 1998.
Times staff writer Gary Jarlson contributed to this story.