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O.C. Near Build-Out With New Project

June 12, 2004|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

Development of the largest remaining swath of privately owned open space in Orange County began in earnest Friday with the release of a draft report on the environmental effects of construction planned for 23,000 acres owned by Rancho Mission Viejo.

The company has been planning the project for a dozen years. Friday's step is the first toward gaining zoning approval for a development that will bring 14,000 new homes to southern Orange County and change growth patterns in the area for decades to come.

The zoning request also marks a milestone in Orange County's steady march toward build-out -- a day when virtually all of the land will be preserved as open space or developed.

"It is a turning point," said Marlon Boarnet, an associate professor in UC Irvine's Department of Planning, Policy and Design. "It is another reminder that Orange County is an urban place."

Though construction on the last parcels of open space will take years, the development blueprint is now set for virtually all of Orange County, including the former oil fields in Yorba Linda, which are giving way to subdivisions, and the closed El Toro Marine base, slated to become the Orange County Great Park.

In Rancho Mission Viejo, the developer is asking that the county zone about 7,700 acres for homes, commercial buildings and a golf resort. An additional 15,100 acres would be zoned for open space, including a 1,000-acre regional park along Ortega Highway.

The ranch, owned by the O'Neill family, stretches 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.

The area is crossed by canyons rich with coastal sage scrub, acres of cropland and rolling hills dotted with grazing cattle much as they were during the ranch's beginnings more than two centuries ago. There are cement quarries and silica mines, and Rancho Mission Viejo company officials say most of the development will be kept to those areas that have been already affected by heavy use.

Linking the relatively undisturbed portions of the land as open space was essential to the development plan and the zoning request, said Dan Kelly, the company's vice president of government relations.

"Growth is part of our future," he said. "We have an opportunity to plan 23,000 acres in a comprehensive, rational and intelligent way rather than doing it piecemeal" over the years.

But critics say the developer is rushing to get zoning approval from the county before doing a complete inventory of the ranch's environmental hot zones.

The developer must still negotiate with state and federal environmental agencies over preservation of sensitive ecological areas.

"The fact that the ranch is pushing forward with the process threatens the public confidence" in the project, said Brittany McKee, conservation organizer for the Sierra Club. "This land is a national priority for the Sierra Club. We are going to do everything at our disposal to protect it."

According to the draft environmental report released by the county, there are eight endangered and threatened species in the ranch and portions of it have been designated as critical habitat by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Kelly said the zoning proposal already takes into account the sensitive habitat areas.

The draft report is the first step in the approval process for the project which could take 20 to 25 years to build. Kelly said the company hopes to break ground in 2 1/2 years.

When it does, it will set in motion development patterns in southern Orange County that could affect the region for generations.

A proposed extension of the Foothill South toll road cuts through Rancho Mission Viejo land and would provide access to the new development.

The developer is also proposing a new road that would parallel Ortega Highway to provide east-west access.

Some residents in nearby cities are already bracing for the consequences.

"Enough is enough," said Cathleen Brannon, 37, of San Juan Capistrano. "We are a small town ... and quality of life is everything here," said the stay-at-home mother, who moved from Huntington Beach 12 years ago.

But Boarnet, the UC Irvine professor, said even as Orange County becomes increasingly crowded and urbanized, it is unlikely to lose its suburban flavor.

"We are closing one chapter, but we are continuing several others," he said. "We are still a master-planned community and that will remain for generations."

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