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Critics Say Developers' Report Skirts Key Issues

Testing of possible toxic waste sites is ignored, environmentalists say. Rancho Mission Viejo officials point out that the study is preliminary.

August 10, 2004|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

A draft environmental report for development of Orange County's largest remaining parcel of privately owned vacant land fails to consider hazardous waste at two military industry sites and doesn't explicitly set aside land for protected plants and animals, conservation groups charged on Monday.

Officials with landowner Rancho Mission Viejo said the report is only a general roadmap of development effects and that more detailed analyses will follow. But critics, who favor restricted development of the land, contend that it should include at least some mention of soil and groundwater testing at two former weapons testing sites known to generate hazardous waste, specifically rocket fuel byproducts such as perchlorate.

"Given the attention paid to perchlorate at other sites in California recently, it's something we'd expect to be in the draft environmental report," said Cara Horowitz, project attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council.

In Ventura, county supervisors last week approved an ordinance requiring home developers to test for contaminants, including perchlorate, before building within two miles of the Rocketdyne field lab in the Simi Hills.

Rancho Mission Viejo development officials said that the draft report was meant to define long-range goals, not specific problems.

The issue of hazardous material would be addressed at subsequent levels of planning, said Dan Kelly, the company's vice president of governmental relations.

Environmentalists also took issue with the review's definitions of open space, which could include golf courses and clubhouses.

"The document really doesn't let people understand what's going to be left over for the wildlife," said Dan Silver, executive director of Endangered Habitats League. "What they're calling open space is really open to so many uses, from agriculture to tennis courts."

Silver said that although his group was not opposed to some development on the property, he would like to see a habitat conservation plan that makes sense for the wildlife.

The ranch, owned by the O'Neill family, reaches from the southern end of Coto de Caza to Camp Pendleton in San Diego County and from the Cleveland National Forest to San Juan Capistrano.

Rancho Mission Viejo plans to build 14,000 homes on 7,700 acres and keep 15,100 acres as open space, including a 1,000-acre regional park along Ortega Highway.

At build-out, the development would house 30,000 people.

County officials plan hearings on the environmental report beginning Sept. 14 and will present the results to the Board of Supervisors in November.

The county approves zoning requests and issues building permits, but state and federal authorities may impose restrictions if a project endangers protected species and water sources.

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