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Pete: A Canyon's Best Friend

Locals Rally as Developer Tries to Sink Teeth Into Silverado Ranch

September 19, 1998|JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

First it was the mammoth toll road at one end of Orange County's bucolic eastern canyons. Then, critics contend, cookie-cutter tract housing sprang up on a hillside just above the rustic crossroads' Cook's Corner motorcycle bar.

But now, they've crossed the line. Developers are eyeing Possum Breath Pete.

That's the word out of Silverado Canyon, as locals gear up to do battle after learning that a Newport Beach-based developer is taking steps to purchase the historic Holtz Ranch, "the old turkey farm" that has long since been abandoned but remains home to one of the canyon's most famous residents.

Possum Breath Pete--Pete to his friends--is the semi-wild, golden-haired stray dog that often perches, Rin Tin Tin-style, atop Holtz Ranch's stone gate, and "he's emblematic of the canyon way of life," says activist Sherry Meddick.

She and others see Pete as a symbol of all the old-time residents of this storied sagebrush pass who, to maintain their rural lifestyle, have fought suburban creep as vigorously as any brush fire.

"Pete's third generation. His momma was born over there, his granddaddy, all of 'em right there on the ranch," said a canyon resident who goes by the name of Zachary Dupre and is among the many who have cared for and fed Pete for years.

Jim Caton, who handles property acquisition for Presley Homes in Southern California, confirmed that the Holtz family recently accepted an offer made by the company. He declined to comment on the proposed purchase price, although a source close to the deal who spoke on condition of anonymity said $10 million was "roughly an accurate figure."

The possibility of a sale infuriates and saddens canyon residents, many of whom feel like their rural surroundings are slipping away.

"Why can't they just leave one piece of Orange County alone?" demanded Melanie Flegal, a longtime resident who also oversees the cash register and many a lively discussion at the Canyon Market, two-tenths of a country mile from the ranch. Flegal feeds Pete when Dupre or others are on vacation or too busy.

Neighborhood sentiment is a key part of whether and how the deal proceeds, said Caton, who is overseeing the proposed acquisition. Caton said he was well aware of Pete, and added that the dog had barked at him when he hiked around the property in recent months.

Caton insists he will work closely with neighbors to introduce a project that everyone can live with and said he called ardent foe Meddick last Monday to hear her side.

Meddick said she told Catonbluntly that whatever plans Presley Homes may have, they'll never make it past the blueprints.

"I gave him some real good advice. 'Just walk away.' He might as well consider his $20,000 down payment, or whatever it was, a lost lottery ticket," Meddick said. "They don't think the people of Podunk will care. Well, you will never see a more vicious fight in your life. That property is burned into the canyon consciousness; it is the canyon," she said.

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Meddick said that, at the end of their chat, Caton told her, "You've been very nice."

She said she politely replied: "You're going to get torn apart."

Plans to develop the Holtz Ranch in the late 1980s failed, largely because of public opposition. Many say that, although the new Eastern Transportation Corridor and other developments at the edge of the canyons are galling, this one is different because it is inside Silverado Canyon, "in the heart of the community," according to Meddick.

Caton confirmed Meddick's account, adding that after talking to her and others he thinks that the community might agree to development more along the lines of Coto de Caza or Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego County, where million-dollar homes rest on lots as large as 10 acres. He also said the company might be willing to set aside unique geological areas for academic study and to contribute money to ease crowding at nearby Silverado Elementary School.

"To quote Hemingway, or whoever said it, 'No man is an island.' We know we have to work with our neighbors here," Caton said.

He added that he "would not rule out" more clustered tract housing in the flat area of the property, made up of more than 300 acres next to the two-lane road that cuts through the narrow, scenic canyon before ending at the Cleveland National Forest.

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Meddick said she believes that road will be key to killing any project that would include more than 15 to 20 homes. Orange County's general plan for the area prohibits traffic growth of more than 1% on the road, Meddick said.

Caton said another county document, the so-called "'Sil-Mod" plan, named for Silverado and nearby Modjeska Canyon, allows for high-density development in three spots--one of them the Holtz Ranch. While the general plan usually supersedes other county plans, the competing language is likely to be disputed before county planning officials and the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

Historical and environmental issues could crop up as well.

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