Marking the first official step toward shaping the landscape of one of the largest pieces of undeveloped land in Southern California, the Orange County Planning Commission on Thursday unanimously approved plans for the 23,000-acre Rancho Mission Viejo development project.
Rancho Mission Viejo wants to build as many as 14,000 homes, 380 acres of commercial and community space and 25 acres of golf resorts. Nearly two-thirds of the property would remain virtually untouched.
The project has attracted large crowds to commission meetings over the last two months with many in support and just as many asking the commission to stop the plans.
"The role of the commission is not to stop a project," said Chairman Rick Goacher. Its job, he said, is to vote on whether the project complies with the law.
But state and federal wildlife agencies say approval of the plans is premature. The agencies, the county and the developer have been working together over the last decade to develop a conservation program for the area, home to endangered species such as the California gnatcatcher and the arroyo toad. The program is yet to be completed.
Rancho Mission Viejo officials say they are still committed to the preservation program and point out that the development, which is expected to take 25 years to build, still must pass several government approvals, including environmental permits.
Responding to public comments since the plan was first unveiled by Rancho Mission Viejo in June, county planners modified some of the development boundaries in an attempt to concentrate development in less ecologically sensitive areas.
But the wildlife agencies and some environmental groups argue that the county did not go far enough.
The plan now goes to the Board of Supervisors, which is scheduled to meet Nov. 8.
"The Planning Commission did not listen to our concerns," said G. Wayne Eggleston, a San Clemente councilman who joined his colleagues this month in adopting a resolution urging the county to reject the development.
Eggleston, like others, is worried about the strain on resources and increased traffic the development will bring to rapidly growing south Orange County.
Rancho Mission Viejo represents the last holdings of the O'Neill and Moiso families, whose ranch once spanned more than 200,000 acres and gave way to such cities as Mission Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita, as well as Camp Pendleton.
Tony Moiso, the family's patriarch and president of Rancho Mission Viejo, said the company had found a balanced plan to accommodate both growth and conservation.
"This is our dream for the land we own," he told commissioners earlier in the week. "Orange County is going to continue to grow, no matter how aggressively that growth is resisted."