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On rural Wildcat Canyon Road, fears of uncaged development

Residents of a remote Orange County outpost in Silverado Canyon are anxiously awaiting supervisors' vote on land-use applications that would alter their way of life.

September 04, 2012|By Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times
  • Wildcat Canyon Road resident Steve Kerrigan hikes a trail he built behind his home in Silverado Canyon.
Wildcat Canyon Road resident Steve Kerrigan hikes a trail he built behind… (Katie Falkenberg, For The…)

The morning talk on Wildcat Canyon Road has turned from rattlesnakes to tarantulas. Neighbors stand in the shade of the oaks and sycamores that arch over the cul-de-sac. It's an impromptu gathering on a summer day when there is no great rush to be at work.

Summer, they say, is snake season, which overlaps tarantula season in the fall. Already, tarantula hawks — the orange-winged wasps that capture the spiders to feed their larva — are out hunting.

One resident, Steve Kerrigan, has lived on this road for 14 years; another, Chay Peterson, for 25 years. They marvel at their encounters with wildlife. It's an easy point of consensus among friends who agree that they live in an unusual, if not precarious, corner of Southern California.

Wildcat Canyon Road is in the middle of Silverado Canyon, one of the last rural outposts in Orange County. To the east are the highest parts of the Santa Ana Mountains and the northernmost portion of the Cleveland National Forest, 165,000 acres of chaparral and coastal sage-scrub. To the west are the foothills, a swath of unincorporated and largely undeveloped land bordering Orange, Tustin and Irvine.

This year the Orange County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors are expected to vote on two land-use applications that would affect Silverado: one, for a monastery and a school proposed for 124 acres at the base of Silverado Canyon, and the other, for a development of 65 homes on 114 acres a few miles down the road.

In addition, the 4th District Court of Appeal will decide, most likely next year, on the validity of a long-standing land-use plan that established guidelines for the open land inside and outside the canyon. The ruling, which will determine whether a local winery can expand its business, could open the area to more commercial development.

Each project offers a glimpse of a future that makes life in unincorporated Silverado seem all the more antiquated. Residents drive to the post office to get their mail. Each Wednesday, they listen to the fire siren being tested. Homes have neither gas nor sewage lines; propane and septic tanks are the norm.

It's a life that the neighbors on Wildcat Canyon Road want to preserve, so talk of development, even if it is miles away, makes some of them nervous.

"We hear stories of property owners scraping land and planting rows of grapes. We fear that they want to turn this area into a Temecula Valley," says Peterson, who 10 years ago helped organize a group of residents to fight for the open space outside Silverado Canyon.

Some of her neighbors wonder whether there can be compromise. "I don't see the reason to fight everything," says Kerrigan, who supports the monastery school and the winery's expansion. "There's room for some growth in the area."

Over the years, the residents of Wildcat have come together over what nature throws at them — fires and floods — but what's man-made is often more divisive.


Shaped like a backward L, Wildcat Canyon Road runs a quarter-mile before ending in dirt. It has 15 homes, one ranch and a posse of dogs that generally stops barking when told.

The neighborhood was evacuated during a 2007 wildfire and inundated with mud and debris during a 2010 storm, and its residents accept the terms of canyon life. The rules are simple: Don't water the oaks. Trim native brush but leave the roots. Keep stream beds clear. Bring cats in at night.

The politics, however, are complicated; the motivations at times hard to discern. "What people really want — what people think is best — many times is what they think is best for themselves," says Kerrigan's neighbor Larry Gilstrap.

The question — how to manage development in the foothills — was raised after the Irvine Co. in 1962 rolled out plans for its holdings and after a Newport Beach company bought 5,000 acres a year later south of Silverado. Coto de Caza, as that property was called, has grown from 200 homes to 4,000 homes and two golf courses.

Concerned that similar projects could come closer to the canyons, residents of Silverado — and the nearby Modjeska and Trabuco canyons — drafted two land-use plans to protect nearly 40,000 acres lying between Irvine Lake and Rancho Santa Margarita. They believed that for ecological and recreational purposes, this land should serve as a buffer between the forest and the suburbs.

The Board of Supervisors approved the plans in 1977 and in 1991. Two years ago, however, the attorney for the county advised the board that one of the plans was not binding.

"Each plan has a clause that says they can be amended," says Bill Campbell, supervisor for this district of Orange County. "To think that something gets written once and stays that way, well, nothing stays the same. The Ten Commandments, perhaps."

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