TRABUCO CANYON — The monks of St. Michael's Abbey lead a cloistered life.
Rising early, they gather at 5:45 a.m. to sing Gregorian chants in Latin. Later they eat a modest lunch in silence. And after evening prayers, the white-robed priests observe silence until bedtime.
"It's an ancient thing," says Father Vincent Gilmore, the abbey's spiritual director who, like the other priests there, lives under a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience. "We've come together to live a common religious life; it's countercultural. You have to give up a lot."
Recently, however, the abbey's 15 monks and 15 seminarians made a major break in their otherwise unchanging routine. Armed with protest placards, they and about 80 teen-age boys--all wearing the neat blue blazers of the abbey's live-in prep school--piled into two buses for a trek to Santa Ana.
Their destination was the hearing room of the Orange County Planning Commission, where they are expected to return today. The purpose: to loudly protest a proposed housing development on 233 acres of pristine hills and canyons next to the abbey.
"The natural setting is important for a monastery," Vincent said. "We need a place that's beautiful and uplifts the spirit. If we find ourselves in the middle of a housing tract, the atmosphere will be destroyed."
At issue is whether the developer--Aradi Inc. of West Los Angeles--will be required to produce a new environmental impact report outlining the likely effects of its project. Aradi is seeking permission to grade 297 lots on a 94-acre portion of its property, which stretches to within 200 feet of the abbey.
Inhabited by grazing cows and occasional hikers, the land to the south and west of the abbey is all rolling hills covered by grass, coastal scrub and shady groves, traversed by a few muddy trails. To the north, some distance away, is the community of Portola Hills.
Company officials argue there have been several environmental impact reviews. Most of these reports covered developments on nearby land. One also was written for the 233 acres' previous owner, who wanted to build a mobile home park there in 1978.
County planners--supported by the priests--are urging the commissioners to require a current environmental impact report. Since 1978, they argue, several new issues have emerged, including expanded development in the immediate area and the presence of an endangered species.
Interestingly, the argument has been waged amid the backdrop of Gov. Pete Wilson's announced intention to make it easier for developers to do business in California.
In his annual State of the State speech earlier this month, Wilson unveiled a proposed constitutional amendment that could make it much tougher for public interest groups, especially environmentalists, to pass new protective laws. And in a recent budget message, the governor talked about his intention to amend the state's Endangered Species Act and the California Environmental Quality Act, which, among other things, created the requirement for environmental impact reports.
The project proposed for the area near the abbey--called Saddleback Meadows--has been on the books in one form or another for nearly 17 years. The Orange County Board of Supervisors approved a plan by the land's then-owner to build a mobile home park consisting of more than 600 units. The number was later increased to 705.
Because of legal and financial problems, however, the project never got off the ground. It was opposed by county staff members because of grading difficulties, traffic concerns, and water and sewer inadequacies.
The project also became embroiled in controversy when it was alleged that then-Orange County Supervisor Bruce Nestande and convicted political corrupter W. Patrick Moriarty had separately worked to help the developer secure a loan. The developer eventually declared bankruptcy and the bank foreclosed on the property.
Aradi Inc. bought the land two years ago, county officials say, and soon applied for a grading permit for the 297 lots, sub-divided in a tract map approved in 1980.
But several factors have changed since the original map was approved, say county planners, who were the first to call for the new environmental impact report.
Subsequent housing developments in surrounding areas have had a major effect on the environment, they say. Saddleback Meadows has become an important wildlife corridor for animals crossing between open areas. And biologists examining the tract's ponds have discovered the presence of the quarter-inch-long Riverside fairy shrimp, which is listed as endangered by the federal government.
"We believe that circumstances have changed since the original EIR was done," said Tom Mathews, Orange County's director of environmental planning. "There are issues we would like to learn more about before we continue the process."
Company officials, however, have appealed the staff determination, arguing that the earlier studies had been sufficient.
After holding a noisy public hearing on the issue two weeks ago, the Planning Commission postponed a decision until today.
Nearby residents say they oppose the development on aesthetic grounds. "We are in a rural area and development would change (that) completely," said Marie Walsh, an activist representing homeowners near the site. "It would take away the charm."
Environmentalists say they are concerned about the potential loss of habitat to the Riverside fairy shrimp and other species.
But the most compelling arguments to some are those of the priests and students of the 35-year-old St. Michael's Abbey.
"We'll be in a fishbowl," said Father Vincent, relaxing on a recent afternoon amid the chiming of bells. "A contemplative, meditative life of prayer requires being removed from the world; (if the development happens) this will be their (the new residents') playground."