TRABUCO CANYON — A little-noted court victory has removed a major hurdle for construction of a controversial strip mall at the edge of the Cleveland National Forest--a decision that has also fueled critics' fears that developers are gaining ground in decades-old battles over building in Orange County canyons.
Two other pending proposals--one old, one new--could add 486 homes to the sparsely populated hillsides around the bucolic Cook's Corner intersection.
The most recent proposal, filed by Eastbridge Partners in December, also seeks permission to chop down more than 1,000 mature live oaks--some more than 5 feet in diameter and hundreds of years old--and to grade flat building sites on steep slopes.
The development pressure isn't limited to Trabuco Canyon. At the other end of Santiago Canyon Road, where it leaves the rugged canyons for the city of Orange, Irvine Co. hopes to build as many as 1,746 homes on 494 acres, part of the firm's long-range plans to spread 12,000 houses over 7,110 acres.
Some canyon-dwellers fear that the projects--beginning with the controversial Live Oaks Plaza strip mall and gas station--will forever change their way of life, which evokes Orange County in the days when ranches held cattle, not housing tracts.
"I'm really concerned about the light and the noise," said Judy Wyatt, 57, who fled the density of suburban Dana Point 17 years ago for Trabuco Canyon and whose house abuts the strip mall site. "We don't need it. It's not rural, and it's not keeping the area rural."
Of deeper concern to critics is Eastbridge Partners' request to loosen limits on tree-cutting and grading contained in the 1991 Foothill/Trabuco Specific Plan, initially adopted to protect the sensitive canyons from harmful development.
Changing the guidelines, critics fear, could signal to developers that hurdles to building in the environmentally fragile area could be lowered.
"It's basically gutting it and making all the work we did back in '91 . . . worthless," said Pete DeSimone, manager of the National Audubon Society's nearby Starr Ranch and a director of the society's local Sea & Sage chapter.
But developer William Shopoff, one of the principals in Eastbridge Partners, said the firm's tree-cutting and grading proposal falls within existing requirements. The proposed zoning change, which would be limited to Eastbridge's sites, would resolve what he views as conflicts within the Specific Plan. For example, he said, in one place the plan seems to bar cutting trees, while elsewhere it sets out specific formulas for replacing them.
"We actually don't deem it to be as radical a change as some people perceive it to be," said Shopoff, who moved to Laguna Beach from Texas at the beginning of the year. "We're seeking the changes on the advice of counsel. It's been a fairly litigious group in the canyons, and we're trying to reflect what the plan really said."
Eastbridge wants to build 141 houses in its proposed Saddle Creek development east of the existing Santiago Estates, and 46 houses in the related Saddle Crest project to the west. Prices would hover around $1 million per home in the gated communities, Shopoff said.
Access to both projects would be from Santiago Canyon Road, although the main entrance for Saddle Creek would be from Live Oak Canyon Road, which cuts through the proposed development site. About 70% of the site--mostly unbuildable terrain farthest from canyon roads--would remain open wild lands.
The county Planning and Development Services Department will accept public comment on the report until Feb. 12. Frank McGill, senior planner for the county, declined to discuss specifics of the proposal because he said county planners had yet to review it in detail.
Once the plan is evaluated by staff planners, he said, it will be forwarded to the local Foothill/Trabuco Review Board, the county Planning Board and, ultimately, the county Board of Supervisors.
Canyon preservationists are already lining up against the proposal.
"We want them to stick with the Specific Plan," said Ray Chandos, secretary/treasurer of the Rural Canyons Conservation Fund. "They're either supposed to leave the trees or move them. They can't destroy them."
Chandos also opposed the Live Oak Plaza project, which would feature a gas station, strip mall and three single-family homes to be built in pastureland adjacent to St. Michael's Abbey.
A protracted legal battle over that project ended in December when the 4th District Court of Appeal upheld a lower-court ruling that the project could proceed.
Ken France, 49, of Laguna Niguel, one of the owners of the property since 1978, said that final site plans are being drawn up but that a groundbreaking date has not been set. County building and grading permits also have yet to be sought.
Long-Running Development Fight