Ending a quarter-century development quarrel, a landowner was allowed Monday to build 266 single-family homes in southeast Orange County after agreeing to expand a wildlife corridor to satisfy environmentalists and build a 30-foot berm to give a neighboring monastery more privacy.
Initially proposed as a 705-unit mobile home park in 1978, the reconstituted 222-acre Saddleback Meadows project in Trabuco Canyon won Superior Court approval Monday after six litigating parties adopted an 18-page settlement brokered during 15 mediation sessions. Among those agreeing to the settlement was the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
As part of the deal, the landowner and developer, California Quartet, will shave the project to 266 homes and all parties will drop pending lawsuits. The developers said they hope to begin construction by spring or summer 2005.
"We felt we had a very good case," said Ed Connor, an attorney representing Ramakrishna Monastery, a stone's throw from the site, off El Toro Road and Live Oak Canyon Road. "But we also felt this might be the best we're ever going to do. We all compromised. I know the developers sacrificed a number of high-end view lots that look back toward our property and the Oso Reservoir."
The Saddleback wilderness area, which contains vernal ponds, ancient live oaks and sage scrub, is inhabited by rare and endangered species, such as the gnatcatcher, fairy shrimp and cactus wren.
An expansion of the wildlife corridor along the southeastern boundary of the property from 150 to about 300 feet wide was approved by the developer at the behest of the Endangered Habitats League and the Sea and Sage Audubon Society.
Another part of the deal included restrictions to permanently preserve and protect zones of open space throughout the project.
Negotiations headed by a court-appointed mediator, retired state Court of Appeal Justice Edward J. Wallin, began in January. They advanced with California Quartet's offer to build a 30-foot-high berm along the southern end of the property, screening much of the development from the half-century-old Ramakrishna Monastery.
"Once they put the berm on the table, we knew they were serious about settling," Connor said. "Now the tranquillity of the monastery will be preserved." At the northwest end of the site, open space will shield another monastery, St. Michael's Abbey.
Pike Oliver, asset manager for California Quartet, said the deal nearly collapsed several times.
"I think [the opponents] came to recognize the inevitability of the development," he said. "We probably compromised more than we had planned to, but I think everybody is pretty happy."
But mostly, those involved in the dispute were exhausted from two decades of court battles and county hearing and mediation sessions.
The mobile home park was scuttled after a previous landowner went bankrupt. Subsequent plans have been blocked by years of lawsuits and one attempt by development opponents to buy the land for a park.
In 1998, a 299-home plan was voided in court over environmental studies.