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Orange County

Vote Due Soon on Saddleback Meadows Project

Supervisors' action is set for Tuesday. Opponents say the date was selected to favor passage of the contested development.

November 04, 2002|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

One of Orange County's longest-running development battles could end Tuesday, when the Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on whether to allow 283 homes to be built at Saddleback Meadows, a historic hillside ranching site at the doorstep of the Cleveland National Forest.

Developer after developer has fought since the 1970s to win approval to build on the steep, landslide-prone slopes between two monasteries. The site's development history has as many twists and turns as the winding county roads it sits near. Lawsuits have stalled plans, a previous owner went bankrupt, and negotiations to buy and preserve it fell apart amid bitter finger-pointing.

Fresh controversy erupted late last week, with opponents charging that 3rd District Supervisor Todd Spitzer scheduled the vote on election day in hopes of getting the project passed before possibly leaving office.

Spitzer, who represents the Saddleback Meadows area, is running to replace Bill Campbell in the 71st Assembly District. If he wins, his last day as supervisor will be Nov. 19. He has voted for the project in the past, dismaying area residents.

County planners and attorneys "didn't want to risk not having a vote taken [Nov. 19] because that's Spitzer's last day, and this is something he's pushing fast and furiously," said Ed Connor, an attorney representing the Ramakrishna Monastery, which has fought the project for years. "They didn't want to take any chances that he couldn't vote on this."

Spitzer did not respond to several calls seeking comment. His spokesman, Jeff Solsby, said Friday that Spitzer won't have "any public comment until after the public meeting on Tuesday."

Jason Grange, a spokesman for landowner California Quartet of Sacramento, said he could not comment on the vote's timing. But Grange said that battles over the site have gone on long enough, that concerns about wildlife and grading have been addressed. "We've invested seven years in the application process, and it has now been recommended for approval by the county staff [and] approved by the Planning Commission," he said.

"We've been through exhaustive environmental study, and it's time to move forward with this project."

Grange noted that the company inherited approvals for 705 mobile homes to be built when it bought the property.

The company and county staff, he said, consider 283 homes with 70% of the land set aside as open space a vastly preferable alternative.

Opponents, including St. Michael's Roman Catholic Abbey and the Hindu-affiliated Ramakrishna Monastery, say that the amount of grading necessary to build the homes is unprecedented even in development-friendly Orange County and that the serenity of their sylvan retreats would be destroyed.

They say no developer will build 705 mobile homes because the high grading costs would make it financially unfeasible.

Conner said that an alternative, lower-density proposal offered by environmentalists and the monasteries would net the developer up to $20 million, while leaving intact huge stands of live oaks, vernal pools that are home to half of the county's endangered Riverside fairy shrimp population, and pristine canyons.

Federal and state regulators have also voiced opposition to the development, saying it would destroy a crucial wildlife corridor between the county's central coast and proposed nature preserves in South County.

As late as last week, Karen Evans of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife office in Carlsbad said that those concerns have not been addressed by California Quartet's proposed wildlife link.

Grange, however, contends that testimony by Dennis Murphy, a University of Nevada biology professor who worked on the county's original nature preserve, before the county Planning Commission in August runs counter to regulators' and environmentalists' claims. Murphy believes that there is no wildlife corridor on the land.

Grange also said opponents' proposed alternative had been studied and was "not feasible."

As the vote drew close, there was a flurry of meetings and lobbying. Tod D. Brown, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, had lunch with Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Cynthia P. Coad on Friday, among others, to press the case that the project should be stopped.

Coad said in an interview that she hasn't decided how to vote.

The vote could end in a tie, as it has in the past, if Supervisor Jim Silva opts to recuse himself. Silva has regularly absented himself from votes on the project since Aradi, a former owner that has the same managing partner as California Quartet, was fined $14,000 for allegedly laundering political contributions to Silva through its employees. The company did not admit any guilt but paid the fines.

Silva was not charged with any wrongdoing and has never been barred from voting on the project but has voluntarily recused himself. He did not return calls for comment on the Tuesday's vote.

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