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This O.C. Canyon Can Do Without the Grand

Residents fight a plan to build huge homes on 5-acre lots, saying the very rich don't belong.

August 17, 2003|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

For decades, residents of Orange County's eastern canyons have fiercely guarded their rustic lifestyle against the advancing suburbs just beyond the hills. But the latest proposal has some residents particularly riled up.

A Las Vegas casino developer who is betting the bucolic surroundings will appeal to the moneyed set has won planning commission approval to build a dozen homes on lots the size of football fields on a former turkey farm off Silverado Canyon Road.

"This project just doesn't belong here," said Sherry Meddick, a longtime canyon resident and activist. "If I put my little house in the middle of [wealthy] Newport Coast, you can bet those people would go berserk."

A "rich person's ghetto," others have called the project. An exclusive retreat for clueless "hoity-toity people."

It is not just the sheer opulence that bothers them, Meddick said. The homes are so large that soil grading for the project will violate development guidelines meant to preserve the canyon's topography, the opponents allege.

The Orange County Planning and Development Services Department disagreed and approved the homes in June. Meddick and others appealed to county supervisors, who will consider the project Tuesday.

Development battles are common in the Silverado, Modjeska and Trabuco canyons, which border the Cleveland National Forest. The scenic ravines are dotted with an eclectic mix of homes along narrow and meandering roads. Many of the locals, a mix of environmentalists, libertarians and reclusive former suburbanites, say the area is fine just the way it is.

Canyon people take conservation seriously. This summer, when Saddleback Valley Unified School District trustees allowed an ancient oak to be cut down at an elementary campus because of safety concerns, a local newsletter promptly called for the ouster of the "oak killer board members" in the upcoming elections.

With lawsuits, local groups have also tied up construction of hundreds of homes in master-planned communities scattered about the canyons.

Holtz Ranch, where the 12 homes are slated to be built, had been on the block for years, as project after proposed project died amid local opposition.

In 1999, Marnell Corrao Associates, a Las Vegas developer whose work includes the Mirage casino and Caesars Palace, bought the 320-acre property for $5 million.

Tony Marnell, co-founder of the company, has owned other properties in Orange County, and has a particular fondness for the local canyons and their communities, said Carol Hoffman, a public relations consultant hired by the developer.

"He likes horses and he wanted to build a property where his family and others could ride and enjoy the environment," Hoffman said.

The 12 "equestrian estates" will sit on about five acres each, and homes as big as 12,000 square feet will be built following a strict set of design guidelines meant to blend the structures with the natural environment.

"We don't want the homes to stand out," Hoffman said.

The controversy has grown so heated that anyone in the canyons who supports the project has been branded a "sellout," or worse, by project opponents.

"You got these radicals in the canyons who refuse to admit there is such a thing as a good project," said Mike Boeck, a member of the Silverado-Modjeska Parks and Recreation Board, which negotiated with Marnell for 46 acres of open space to be reserved if the homes are built.

"If I had my way, there would be no one moving into Orange County without someone moving out," said Boeck, who has battled previous developments in the canyons.

"But that is not feasible. I work with what is feasible."

The parks and recreation board chairman, Bob Hunt, has also felt the heat. Even though he is "not in favor or against the project," he commended the developer for offering the open space.

And about his being called a sellout? "That's life in the canyons," he said.

Marnell officials said the company may build two additional homes, beyond the 12 now planned, leaving about 200 acres of ranch property as private open space. But they said they have no definitive plans.

Meddick and other opponents are distrustful. They say the current plans already violate development guidelines set for Silverado Canyon by defacing the hillsides, and nothing would prevent Marnell from doing it again in the future. They also point out that the area may contain significant Native American archeological sites.

County planning officials maintain the developer's plans adhere to the guidelines.

"They are lying," Meddick said bluntly.

"We have the utmost respect for Sherry [Meddick]. But just because we do not agree with her, it doesn't mean we are lying," said Brian Murphy, a spokesman for the planning department.

Observers say development battles are likely to intensify as the region becomes built out and there are fewer and fewer places to put new projects.

Renee LeClaire-Wortman, a 30-year resident of the canyons, said it saddens her to see a unique way of life threatened by newcomers with little appreciation for nature.

It is not about shaping the land to fit new homes, she said. It is about learning to live with the land as it is. "I don't think the new people understand that."

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