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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

Homes on the Range

November 18, 2001

Much of South County was once a blank slate, to be penciled in by development agreements between landowners and the county with subdivisions, roads, and shopping and business centers. Today, everybody from environmental activists to soccer moms is watching what happens to the remaining land.

The last large patch of privately owned open space is now being earmarked for development in a very different time. Rancho Mission Viejo, original owner of the land that became suburban centers in Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita and the new Ladera Ranch, must exercise great care to involve the many interested groups, from the environmental lobby to municipal leaders, in developing this remaining 22,850 acres north and east of San Juan Capistrano in a way that preserves the special rural character of the region. The company has come under criticism for not bringing in community groups before it submitted a proposal to the county this month for 14,000 units of housing.

The ranch says that it always intended to involve the groups, and that it will pay close attention to the environment during the federal Natural Communities Conservation Plan process, designed to allow various parties to know what land will be set aside and what can be developed.

Whoever is right about what has happened up until now, it is essential that the process be inclusive in the future. It won't do to have private biologists make sensitive habitat determinations alone.

Today, there are many more people who have a stake, and the gradual development of the county has resulted in more haggling over open space when a major development proposal comes up. While considerable land already has been set aside around the county by the major landowners, new development always must strike a balance.

Tony Moiso, president and CEO of Rancho Mission Viejo, argues that putting forth a comprehensive plan for such a huge amount of land now can serve everybody's best interest. He says he is looking ahead to a future generation of ranch heirs who may not be in agreement.

A comprehensive plan surely is preferable to a piecemeal approach, considering it is possible now to think about all this land at one time. It is unrealistic to think that nothing is going to happen later on. A single plan to cover a period of 30 years is good for the county as well as for the owner.

The plan to build 14,000 homes has been criticized, and there are questions about how much of the two-thirds of the land set aside as open space really will be open.

The company is saying the right things, but suspicion about the process already has been expressed by environmentalists. County parks officials have their own reservations about the open-space plan and whether this would just be land going into the county system that can't be developed anyway.

These questions need to be addressed fully. The company must work with these groups and with county parks officials. If this really is just the opening volley, as the owner says, it is incumbent on the company to make good on its pledge to bring people in on the process.

It's encouraging that the percentage of undeveloped acreage is high under the plan, but the jury must remain out for now on the quality of the undeveloped land for preserving natural habitat and for public use. Nearby cities are certainly familiar with what the ranch has said and done in the past, but the involvement of outside partners for this new development plan makes it clear that this is very much about business as well as securing the future of the ranch.

Some of the areas are well off the beaten path, and the company has talked about the need for improved roads to serve them. The company has made no secret of its desire to see the Foothill toll road extended to serve the area also. That proposal has its own set of environmental problems that need to be resolved.

A road that residents must pay to ride also raises the question of affordability of these new units and whether 14,000 new units will do much to address the county's shortage of inexpensive housing.

Ultimately, the county will review the proposal for a general plan amendment and zoning change for this ranch area. It must be a vigilant overseer. The days of the handshake are gone, and the county has a responsibility to conduct a thorough review to protect habitat and the interests of the larger community.

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