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Mission Viejo Co.'s Plan for Land Raises Ruckus

July 19, 2001|EVAN HALPER and SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Rancho Mission Viejo Co. will unveil a preliminary development proposal today for the last large parcel of privately owned open space in south Orange County, angering environmentalists who had expected to be in on the planning from the start.

"We don't even know what biologists surveying the land have found out there," Bill Corcoran, a conservation coordinator with the Sierra Club in Los Angeles, said Wednesday of the 25,000-acre parcel, home to several rare plant and animal species plus one of the last pristine watersheds in Southern California.

Company officials said the logical procedure is for a developer to present its preferred plan first, then negotiate with the community.

Spokeswoman Diane Gaynor said the company has committed itself to two innovative planning processes that meet the rigorous requirements of the Endangered Species and Clean Water acts.

"What we're looking at is a milestone plan that includes preservation of vast amounts of open space based on scientific data, " she said.

The company agreed several years ago to develop the land under guidelines of the Natural Communities Conservation Plan, a federal program to give builders assurances that, if they set aside considerable acreage to protect endangered habitats, they will be permitted to build on other environmentally sensitive areas of their property. The program allows landowners to avoid "bush by bush" scrutiny from regulators and preservationists to save key habitats.

The Rancho Mission Viejo land is also part of a Special Area Management Plan, which allows developers to alter or fill waterways in exchange for preserving other waterways.

The watchword for both federal programs is consensus, so no rules state how the parties involved are to proceed.

"To keep everything moving, we are stepping forward with our preferred project proposal," Gaynor said.

But Andrew Wetzler, a staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles, said the company, by presenting its preferred alternative so early on, is sidestepping the process.

"By putting out a land-use plan, they're figuring out what they want to build and then negotiating the NCCP around that," he said "They're essentially reverse-engineering the NCCP."

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