It is a warm Saturday afternoon in Silverado, and the fragrance of sun-warmed sage rolls down the brush-covered canyon walls.
Sherry Meddick, cup of coffee in one hand and cigarette in the other, trades small talk with a string of neighbors as she stands on a shaded walkway in the community's commercial center--one small market, a restaurant, a cafe, a real estate office, a post office and a tiny branch library.
One neighbor engages her in a discussion of the pleasures of a particular brand of ice cream bar. Another arrives with a frisky black mutt, just abandoned by a "flatlander" along the two-lane road that winds through the steep canyon. The friendly newcomer provokes a noisy and irritated rebuke from Clyde, the aging chocolate-brown Labrador usually found dozing in front of the market.
The market door swings open and the cashier leans out. She wants Meddick's help in stopping a neighbor from cutting down a centuries-old oak.
"I'm gonna get a gun," the cashier says, with enough of an edge to make an outsider wonder whether she might be serious. "I'm gonna end up in jail, so you'll save me a lot of hassle if you do this. . . . Someday, I'll get in a lot of trouble over this tree."
Meddick promises to take a look and do what she can. If more diplomatic channels fail, she jokes, "you can be chained on one side, I can be chained on the other."
Sherry Meddick makes it her business to look after trees. When a growing oak split the foundation of her own home a few years back, she didn't cut down the tree--she moved the house. "That tree is 300 or 400 years old," she says. "It's not a tree that's replaceable."
But while she still finds time for the small battles, her attention has turned increasingly from the welfare of single trees to plans that can affect hundreds, even thousands, of oaks, sycamores and alders.
The canyons of the Santa Ana Mountain foothills, home to rural communities such as Silverado, Modjeska and Trabuco, were once too remote for developers who carpeted the rest of the county with tracts of look-alike housing. But now, times are changing for the land that urban sprawl forgot.
"A lot of the more readily developed areas of the county, particularly the flatter areas, are already developed," says Lynn Dosheery, chief of the land planning section for the county Environmental Management Agency. "People are looking into the foothill areas for development."
Looking into them in a big way. The warning shot was Portola Hills, some of whose 2,500 tract units look down from a ridge top onto Cook's Corner, the rustic roadhouse that sits at the convergence of El Toro, Santiago Canyon and Live Oak Canyon roads. The beer-and-hamburger joint, a converted World War II mess hall moved to the site in 1946, has long served as the symbolic boundary between suburban Orange County and the rural backcountry.
Housing projects are proposed for the area that stretches from Cook's Corner and Trabuco along Santiago Canyon Road to Silverado. Projects in various stages of planning include Santiago Ranch (162 homes on 120 acres); Rose Canyon Ranch (1,550 homes on 589 acres); Holtz Ranch (347 homes on 318 acres) and Foothill Ranch (3,900 homes on 1,643 acres).
Also on the drawing board for the canyon areas are road-widening and building projects and commercial centers--and one project Meddick calls "enormochurch." In August, Saddleback Valley Community Church filed for a permit to develop a site on Live Oak Canyon Road near Trabuco. Plans include a 6,500-seat church--that's more seats than the Crystal Cathedral--an education facility, a day-care center and a 100,000-square-foot conference center.
This is a crucial time for the communities of Silverado, Trabuco and Modjeska, where many residents see the encroaching development as a threat to a cherished way of life. It is an area where tiny mountain cabins are tucked among the trees, where streets are named Thisa Way, Thata Way and Hunky Dory Lane, where residents boast of knowing every face in town and of not having to lock the doors at night.
It is, in short, an area where the life style bears little resemblance to that in the rest of the county.
"People from out of state stop in front of the market and say, 'Gosh, we haven't seen any place like this in Southern California,' " Meddick says. "Even people who have lived in the county for 25 years will suddenly discover us and say the same thing."
And the threat of change has been enough to turn some residents of the once-sleepy communities into activists. Meddick is president of the Rural Canyons Residents Assn., which draws most of its 350 members from Silverado and Modjeska. Bruce Conn and Ray Chandos head up the Rural Canyons Conservation Fund, which concentrates on the Trabuco area.