Orange County supervisors were named as defendants in two lawsuits for approving a zone change in the controversial 299-home Saddleback Meadows development, an area in Trabuco Canyon that has been called a "critically important" wildlife corridor by state and federal wildlife officials.
The lawsuits, filed Friday by St. Michael's Abbey and the Ramakrishna monastery and several environmental groups, alleges the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 8 voted for a zone change that "has exempted the project from compliance with the Foothill Trabuco Specific Plan," abbey attorney Edmond Connor said.
"We're looking for a court order directing the board to invalidate and set aside land approvals it gave the developer," Connor said.
According to the lawsuit, the vote was "so senseless and inexcusable" that the project was pushed in an "extremely hurried and haphazard manner" just to let outgoing Supervisor William G. Steiner vote in favor before his term expired.
The monastery of the Vedanta Society of Southern California is also seeking the return of 244 acres the monastery donated to the county more than 20 years ago.
Donated in 1974, the pristine land eventually became part of O'Neill Regional Park. But Connor said supervisors, "by their recent actions," have shown "little regard and interest in protecting the land," and it violates the deed's restrictive language.
County Counsel Laurence M. Watson could not be reached for comment.
The debate over Saddleback Meadows stretches back two decades, with plans taking many forms, from a 318-home project to a cluster of 705 mobile homes.
The latest proposal for the 222-acre property called for a gated community of single-family homes grouped around cul-de-sacs in the Trabuco Canyon area with price tags of $300,000 and up.
Last year, the abbey and monastery filed a lawsuit against supervisors and the developer, California Quartet Ltd., seeking to stop the proposed development at that time. But the lawsuit was set aside temporarily while the differing parties entered negotiations with the hope that an agreement could be reached.
"There've been different combinations and permutations about what should be built on that property ever since we entered negotiation last March," Connor said.
In September, a proposed agreement evolved in which the abbey and monastery would hand over 44 acres and, in return, receive 178 acres of wild land. But that was quashed when the developer asked for 75 acres instead of 44, Connor said.
"That would have taken away the oak trees, the ponds, and the canyons and the ridgelines, virtually everything we cared about," Connor said.
Environmental Groups Claim Laws Violated
Negotiations broke off in early December. Then county supervisors voted 3 to 1, on Dec. 8, for a zone change sought by the developer. Those who voted for the change included Supervisors William G. Steiner, Charles V. Smith and Todd Spitzer. The dissenter was Supervisor Thomas W. Wilson. Supervisor James W. Silva did not vote.
Plaintiffs in the second lawsuit included Endangered Habitats League Inc., Sea and Sage Audubon Society Inc., and Rural Canyons Conservation Fund.
The environmental groups alleged that the county and developers violated the California Environmental Quality Act, and state zoning and planning laws, said their attorney, Mary L. Hudson.
"If this project had to comply with the specific plan, it would never have been approved," Hudson said. "This is a bad development because it has bad environmental effects."
The developer could not be reached for comment.