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Orange County

Battle Lines Form Over Development

Planning commission meeting for the Rancho Mission Viejo project draws supporters and critics. Supervisors will consider plan this fall.

June 24, 2004|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

Rancho Mission Viejo's plan to develop Orange County's largest remaining swath of privately owned open space had its first public vetting Wednesday at a planning commission meeting that attracted an equal number of proponents and critics.

The meeting at the county Hall of Administration in Santa Ana was for information purposes only. But the public comments provided a preview of the debate likely to follow as the county considers approval of the 23,000-acre development.

Landowner Rancho Mission Viejo wants to build 14,000 homes on 7,700 acres, setting aside an additional 15,100 acres as open space, including a 1,000-acre regional park along Ortega Highway.

Critics say the county should not approve the plan until state and federal environmental agencies have finished studying the project's affect on sensitive ecological areas and natural watersheds inside the ranch's boundaries.

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

The county planning commission is scheduled to start discussions on the project this summer and make a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, who will consider the Rancho plan in November.

The environmental studies and recommendations are not expected to be completed until next year, said Tim Neely, the county's director of planning and development.

Neely said state and federal environmental agencies recently shifted their limited staff to Riverside County, which has experienced tremendous growth in recent years. That move has resulted in delays for Orange County projects.

Ideally, the zoning approvals and environmental plans would happen simultaneously, Neely said, but "a lot of the work has been done [on the environmental surveys] and we are close to the finish line."

But not everyone was convinced. "This ignores the proper process," said Paul Carlton of San Clemente, one of nearly 20 people who came out to oppose the project. Carlton and others said they worry about overdevelopment in South County and the effect on the environment and their quality of life.

About an equal number of people came out in support.

"This is an excellent deal for taxpayers and environmentalists," said Reed Royalty, president of the Orange County Taxpayers Assn., noting that two-thirds of the ranch would remain open space. "We recommend you take it and run," Royalty told the commissioners.

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