It's a development battle that has it all: a clash between rural and suburban lifestyles, the threatened displacement of coyotes and deer, the problem of preserving 2,000 oak trees, even charges that the building site borders swampland.
The battleground is Live Oak Canyon, which already has a split personality. From one side of the canyon, a narrow, twisting road leads to houses of varying size in a neighborhood of horses, dogs, big trees and natural vegetation. From the other side of the canyon, a modern, gently curving highway leads to orderly tracts of suburban houses with well-trimmed lawns.
Between these two vastly different neighborhoods are 40 acres where Warmington Homes of Costa Mesa proposes to build 33 houses and preserve a stand of oak trees through a monthly fee paid by home buyers. The houses would be built on the east side of the property, leaving intact 25 acres of oaks in rugged terrain extending west to Esperanza Drive.
Everyone agrees that the houses would be nice enough, ranging from 2,500 to 3,300 square feet and selling for $350,000 to $425,000.
But neighbors told the Planning Commission last week that the proposed development would block a horse trail, ruin a wildlife habitat and destroy mountain views from adjoining yards.
Peter Dawson, who lives in the rural area south of the site, presented the commission with a petition signed by 85 residents, asking that the plan be rejected. John Leavens, representing 325 homeowners in the new housing tracts north of the site, also voiced objections.
The commission voted to recommend approval of an environmental impact report on the project. But most of the tough decisions, including whether to allow Warmington to build 33 homes or a lesser number, will not be made until the builder submits a specific plan.
Joseph Farnan, vice chairman of the commission, told Warmington officials at the end of last week's hearing that there are many problems to resolve. "Warmington needs to open a lot of dialogue with a lot of people," he said.
In approving the report, the commission also declared that an alternative plan of building 20 homes on equestrian lots would be less environmentally harmful than the 33-home project.
But James Skinner, vice president of planning and engineering for Warmington, said it isn't economically feasible to build fewer than 33 houses.
One reason, he said, is the need to raise money to maintain the oak trees. The plan calls for formation of a homeowners association that would collect money for tree maintenance, street work and other improvements. Spread among 33 homes, the cost would be $250 a month each. By reducing the number of homes to 20, Skinner said, the monthly fee would jump to $410.
Skinner said that according to the city's own studies, construction of 33 homes would cause no significant environmental damage to the area.
But Jan Perkins, who lives on a 1 1/2-acre lot bordering the project, said the environmental impacts have been underestimated.
Perkins said wildlife would suffer. She said deer and coyotes, which pass from the open hillsides to the northeast through the site to reach water under the oaks, would have their habitat invaded. Other residents said they fear that coyotes, driven out of their normal path, might wind up prowling the streets, endangering children.
Perkins, who owns horses, said a trail through the property that has been used for years by hikers and horseback riders would be blocked. She and other opponents of the project have obtained a legal opinion that says that because the trail has been used for years without objection by the property owner, John Stephens, users have acquired a right to the trail.
Warmington, which is buying the land from Stephens, denies that a trail easement exists.
Nevertheless, Skinner said Warmington will try to incorporate a trail into the project but needs to work out a link with property owners to the north. In addition, he said, Warmington would design some of the lots so buyers could keep horses in order to increase the compatibility with the neighboring area of equestrian homes.
The lots would be at least 15,000 square feet, he said, which would be as large as many adjoining lots in the rural neighborhood.
In addition, Skinner said, some of the homes that were originally planned as two-story will be built as single-story to preserve mountain views for neighbors. But some residents complained that Warmington's single-story homes are almost as tall as its two-story models.
Norm Anderson, who lives south of the site, said the whole atmosphere of the canyon would be degraded by the new project. For example, he said, glare from lights in the new development would interfere with views of the night sky.