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Orange County

O.C.'s Code Rulings Are Unfair, Say Longtime Canyon Dwellers

Enforcement: Rural residents complain that they're held to land-use and building rules while commercial projects aren't. Officials deny it.

April 15, 2002|JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As suburbia spreads to Orange County's canyons, longtime residents say a double standard is being applied by county code officials and politicians in their neck of the woods.

While owners of small homes in Modjeska, Silverado and other canyons have faced an enforcement crackdown on building and land-use regulations, major commercial ventures build and operate at will without permits, residents say.

For instance, 70-year-old retiree Claude Franklin has been cited twice by code enforcement officials for keeping chickens in "unsightly" sheds.

But a large motocross track was built without grading permits or environmental approvals in the dry bed of Irvine Lake last summer, and has stayed open long after a temporary use permit expired, despite complaints by area activists. And one area couple held up to four weddings a week in their backyard at $5,000 per event, without permits, although neighbors complained repeatedly about traffic, noise and other problems.

Thomas B. Mathews, director of the county's Planning and Development Services Department, insisted there is no double standard. Tough zoning codes regulate chicken coops, for instance, he said.

As for the weddings, he said he didn't want to cancel long-scheduled ceremonies while the couple sought permits.

"I feel sorry for Claude Franklin, but we don't get to choose what we enforce," agreed Planning Department spokesman Brian Murphy, who said Franklin's case still was being studied for a possible compromise.

The real difference, Murphy said, is that larger applicants can afford to hire attorneys to fight planning decisions. That doesn't equate to favoritism, he said.

But critics note that Stephen Sheldon, an attorney for both the wedding organizers and the motocross operators, is a campaign contributor to Supervisor Todd Spitzer, and Spitzer and his staff intervened repeatedly in county efforts to require permits at both sites.

Sheldon was Spitzer's largest single individual contributor last year, donating $3,000 on Nov. 24 to his bid for the 71st District Assembly seat, a state race not subject to county campaign finance caps. A former staffer of Spitzer's also was hired by both projects to prepare engineering reports.

"This is a clear example of the buddy-buddy money game," said Sherry Meddick, a resident of Silverado Canyon and an outspoken activist. "It's special rules for special people."

Sheldon denied any link between his backing of Spitzer and the code enforcement issues.

"There is absolutely no connection between who my wife and I support because of our political convictions, and my clients," he said. "Frankly, I'm offended."

Spitzer, a former county prosecutor who represents the rural areas, denied showing political favoritism. He said he follows the law "to a tee" and considers every project on its merits.

He and his staff were involved because both projects were in his district and because he has been actively involved in zoning matters, he said.

Spitzer said he questioned Sheldon about the wedding site at a recent supervisor's meeting, then voted against a permit for the couple to continue holding weddings, citing noise, drainage, an overloaded septic system and other concerns.

But neighbors say it took nearly two years to reach that point.

As for the motocross track, county planning documents show that Spitzer or his staff have questioned an October ruling by Mathews saying the track was operating illegally, and had long conversations with Sheldon about it. Spitzer's involvement is the reason the track has stayed open after its temporary use permit expired in February, records and interviews show.

Spitzer said his actions are unrelated to Sheldon. He said he personally likes motocross and felt that the operators, Saddleback Motorsports Partners, were young small-business owners who had been misled by the Serrano Water District, which leased them the site and told them a decades-old general recreation permit for the property was all that was necessary.

He also noted that hundreds of motocross users contacted his office when the course was temporarily closed in the fall.

Brad Etter, co-owner of the track, said he and his partners hired Sheldon, a land-use attorney, based on a recommendation from a law school friend.

Etter said suggestions that they were a large, politically connected business were off base.

"I think of us as a small, mom-and-pop recreational activity," said Etter, an estate tax attorney.

David Noyes, general manager of the water district, said the motocross operators were not misled. He believes the old permit is sufficient, but that if additional permits were required, it is the track operators' responsibility to get them.

"They've agreed to that from day one. They've always understood that," Noyes said.

Sheldon said he went to Spitzer's office because he wanted the matter brought before the Board of Supervisors, which can overturn some planning decisions.

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