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Orange County

Sensitive Tract Where Homes Plan Won't Die

Growth: State and federal wildlife officials thought Saddleback Meadows had been saved from development. County is poised to OK 299 homes.

July 07, 2002|EVAN HALPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Environmentalists liken the 20-year saga of fighting development of Saddleback Meadows, in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, to the plot of a horror film. Just when they think they have finally killed off any chance of major construction on the ecologically sensitive 230-acre property, the proposals rise from the grave.

The first plan died when the landowner went bankrupt. After new owners took over, their plans were met with lawsuits by opponents, which indefinitely delayed progress on the proposals. Opponents also offered to buy the land for a park, using private and government money.

But negotiations to buy the property collapsed and the developer avoided court action by filing new environmental reports. Saddleback Meadows is the only remaining wildlife link between two of the nation's biggest urban conservation districts, connecting tens of thousands of acres of open space.

Now development prospects have been reborn in the form of a thick county environmental report that says building 299 homes meshes with the county's land-use vision for the site.

It's a conclusion that has environmentalists sputtering and some government experts concerned.

"It's a key wildlife corridor connection," said Bill Tippets, environmental program manager for the state Department of Fish and Game. "It is very valuable because of the species on site and the critical role it plays in connecting the two large areas."

Saddleback Meadows is home to such rare or endangered species as gnatcatchers, fairy shrimp and the cactus wren. It has vernal ponds that biologists say are unlike any in the country, significant coastal sage scrub and oak trees that are hundreds of years old.

The parcel's owner, California Quartet of Sacramento, says that if conservationists wanted to stop development, they should have forked over the cash when they had the chance. The company entered into an agreement to sell the property to a coalition of wildlife agencies and conservation groups for $12.2 million in June 1998. The deal unraveled at the last minute, with each side blaming the other.

"We invested years and significant financial resources negotiating with the county and private parties for the acquisition of the property, only to have private parties back out of signed agreements," said company spokesman Jason Grange. "At this point, we regard any further proposals as nothing more than a delaying tactic."

The next key decision rests with the county, which will take up California Quartet's proposal in the fall. If past actions are any guide, officials will probably approve the project.

In 1984, the county approved plans for 705 mobile homes on the land--a zoning designation that still stands.

And in 1999, the county approved an earlier plan for 299 homes on the site over the objections of state and federal agencies, a decision thrown out by the courts after the environmental studies were found to be inadequate.

Opponents say they are perplexed by the county's willingness to clear the way for large-scale development on the property.

"If this huge project comes in, that corridor is dead," said Ed Connor, an attorney for the Vedanta Society of Southern California, which runs the Ramakrishna Monastery next to Saddleback Meadows. It donated 240 acres to the county to bolster the corridor. "You would think the county would recognize that and say, 'We really shouldn't be putting 300 houses there.' "

County planners say their hands are tied. Blocking development without reimbursing the owners would amount to an unconstitutional taking of property by the government, they say.

"We're looking for a balance," said Bryan Speegle, the county's assistant director of Planning and Development Services. "If they can propose a plan that works and is compatible with the surrounding environment, then it may be appropriate."

Before the previous 299-house plan was approved by the county, state and federal wildlife officials signed a letter warning that the proposal would "severely constrain wildlife movement" and "essentially eliminate the corridor." They stated flatly that the proposal was "not acceptable."

But those agencies do not have jurisdiction over the corridor: The county does. And county planners say they are open to California Quartet's argument that the homes can be built without destroying the wildlife link.

"There may be ways to align habitat corridors through the site that meet everybody's needs," Speegle said.

He notes that 299 houses would do far less damage to the environment than the 705 mobile homes already approved--and which California Quartet says it will build if its other proposal is rejected.

Preservationists say that's a ruse. They argue that the mobile home project isn't feasible because it would require property improvements too expensive to turn a profit.

"I think the county should call their bluff," said Dan Silver, coordinator of the Los Angeles-based Endangered Habitats League. Silver says he believes the company is trying to get building rights to inflate the cost of the property before it invites government agencies and preservationists back to the negotiating table.

Company officials, however, say they are done negotiating to sell the property as a park. The only negotiations they intend to engage in, they say, are with builders interested in buying the land once it has been approved for the 299 homes.

"The company has already been through serious negotiations to sell the property as open space," said William Ross, an attorney for California Quartet. "It didn't pan out."

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