SANTA ANA — A controversial Trabuco Canyon housing project that has been planned for 16 years was delayed again Tuesday as county Planning Commissioners debated whether more environmental study is necessary.
The Planning Commission, after hearing impassioned testimony from critics of the plan, agreed to decide at a Jan. 31 meeting whether it will require Los Angeles-based ARADI Inc. to conduct an extensive environmental impact report before proceeding with any development plans.
The 232 acres of rolling hills, known as Saddleback Meadows, sits off El Toro Road and has neighbors that include the Portola Hills community and St. Michael's Abbey, a 35-year-old monastery that operates a boarding school for boys.
In 1980, county officials approved a mobile-home park with 714 affordable and low-income units for the site. But representatives for ARADI, which bought the property out of bankruptcy in June, 1993, said the company now plans to build 297 single-family homes under a first development phase. The company said it has not yet decided whether to build additional homes in future phases.
ARADI representatives said Tuesday that the company has legal rights to build the homes under an agreement with the county that stems from a planning process started in 1978. Only limited additional study on environmental effects would be needed, said Frank R. Elfend, a planning consultant working with ARADI.
But county planners say more environmental study is needed because much has changed since previous studies, including discovery of the endangered Riverside fairy shrimp in at least one of eight ponds on the property.
ARADI asked for a permit last spring to begin grading the property for the 297 lots, but was denied by the county's Environmental Management Agency. The company appealed to the Planning Commission, prompting Tuesday's hearing.
About 200 people, including two busloads of students from St. Michael's, packed Tuesday's meeting to urge further environmental study. Many expressed confusion about what is now being proposed for the land.
Neighboring residents had long opposed the mobile-home park, saying it would bring too much traffic and destroy the rural character of their neighborhoods.
"The county will lose the beauty of our canyons if our laws are not upheld," said Marie Walsh, a resident of the neighboring Hidden Ridge neighborhood.
Alfonso Pena, 17-year-old student vice president at St. Michael's, said his school would face disruptions like it never has before.
"St. Michael's is an endangered species, and it too should be protected," he said.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Housing Plans Nearby residents are balking at a developer's proposal to build 297 homes in the Saddleback Meadows area.