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O.C. gives 1,200 acres to trust backed by developer

The firm wants a toll road built through the property but says it will keep open space undeveloped.

August 20, 2008|Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writer

Orange County supervisors Tuesday approved a plan to give control of 1,200 acres of open space to a land trust backed by a developer that supports building a six-lane toll road through the property.

The developer, Rancho Mission Viejo, says it plans to add the land to its own 17,000-acre open space preserve and maintain it as undeveloped land. The land was originally set aside as part of an earlier agreement to offset the environmental and wildlife effects of housing developments.

Rancho Mission Viejo said the transfer would provide more resources, such as the reserve's $200-million endowment, to enhance and protect the land. County officials portrayed the transfer as bureaucratic streamlining that is part of a plan to consolidate management of up to 33,000 acres of open space in southern Orange County under a single entity.

But a lawyer for a board member on the conservancy that now oversees the land sent a letter opposing the transfer to supervisors Monday, saying it appeared to be a way to eventually give a portion of it to the public agency that is seeking to build the toll road through it.

"We believe that such a transfer is not in the interest of the public," wrote attorney Todd T. Cardiff on behalf of Michael Lindsey, a member of the Donna O'Neill Land Conservancy board.

Supervisors approved the proposal unanimously, with little debate and no public opposition. The proposal also must be approved by the San Clemente City Council, which is scheduled to vote on it Sept. 2, before it can take effect.

The plan to move the Donna O'Neill land into the Reserve at Rancho Mission Viejo is the latest twist in a complex history. Over the last two decades, the property has gone from being an ecological gem preserved to offset a housing development to being a potential through-way for a 16-mile, $1.3-billion private toll road that would connect southern Orange County east of Mission Viejo to Interstate 5 near Basilone Road in northern San Diego County.

The land was set aside in 1990 as a countermeasure to the 3,800-home Talega development in San Clemente. With thousands of coast live oaks, coastal sage-scrub, sycamore groves and threatened, endangered and rare species of lizards, toads and other wildlife, the land has thus far remained untouched -- other than docent-led nature walks. But in 2006, the directors of Orange County's toll road agency voted to approve plans to build the turnpike through the property as a way to alleviate congestion on Interstate 5.

In February, the California Coastal Commission dealt a seeming death blow to the toll road when it found that it violated coastal protection laws because of its path through San Onofre State Beach. But the road's supporters have appealed that decision to the U.S. Commerce secretary in the hope of overturning it. No decision on the appeal has been made.

On Tuesday, environmentalists and county officials alike were unclear on what, if any, effect the transfer of oversight of the land would have on its ultimate use.

The proposal to consolidate management of the region's open space has been in the works for some time and was laid out in a conservation plan approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007.

Some said the Donna O'Neill conservancy board did relatively little to oppose the highway in the first place, in part because many of the board members supported the highway project.

But others said it could ultimately place responsibility for the land management with a more private entity. That would make changing the land's use easier while silencing debate from dissenters, such as Lindsey, the Donna O'Neill board member.

"Rancho Mission Viejo supports the toll road," said Cardiff, the lawyer for Lindsey. "You are giving [the land] to a private land trust that isn't necessarily open to the public or public influence, and there is no guarantee this land trust is going to keep the door open to the public. You are giving it to a land trust set up by a developer that stands to make bucket loads of money if the toll road goes through."

Diane Gaynor, a spokeswoman for Rancho Mission Viejo, acknowledged Tuesday that the developer supports the toll road.

But she said that the reserve plans to keep the Donna O'Neill land as "perpetual open space" and that fears to the contrary are unfounded.

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christian.berthelsen@latimes.com

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