As development plans for the 23,000-acre Rancho Mission Viejo come before the county planning board today, some say the project is being rushed at the expense of conservation efforts.
The plans, which will be reviewed by the Orange County Planning and Development Services Department, call for 14,000 homes, about 380 acres of commercial and community space and 25 acres of golf resorts. Nearly two-thirds of the property would remain open space.
Rancho Mission Viejo is the largest swath of privately owned land in the county. It is also the centerpiece of a unique conservation plan for the area whose fate hinges on how development is managed on the property.
State and federal wildlife agencies have cautioned against approving Rancho Mission Viejo's plan before the conservation program for the area is completed.
The land "is one of the crown jewels remaining in Southern California," said Gail Presley, a manager with the state Department of Fish and Game. "We are not sure what it means for the end game" if the plans are approved at this point.
Rancho Mission Viejo officials say that far from harming conservation efforts, their plan moves forward with setting general boundaries between land to be developed and the portions to be preserved.
"If you sit and wait, all you are doing is sitting and waiting," said Dan Kelly, Rancho Mission Viejo's vice president of government relations. "We are not willing to wait forever."
Today's planning commission vote is the first step in the approval process for the project, which is expected to take 25 years. The Board of Supervisors will meet Nov. 8 to discuss the land zoning request and the commission's recommendation.
Kelly pointed out that in those 25 years, Rancho Mission Viejo will have to clear several government approvals before building anything. He said that in the nearly 11 years that the company has worked with the wildlife agencies, enough has been learned to plan development around ecologically sensitive areas.
But the agencies and some environmentalists say that until they analyze the information and come to clear conclusions, even a zoning approval may be premature.
If the county approves the developer's plan, said Dan Silver, executive director of the Endangered Habitats League, "the conservation plan will have to adapt to the [Rancho Mission Viejo], plan rather than vice versa."