By Tina Richards

The reality of amendments made by the county to the Foothill Trabuco Specific Plan (FTSP) has hit home as mature oak trees are cut to stumps, habitat for nesting birds is bulldozed, and once-protected natural land is crisscrossed with heavy equipment.

The 65-unit Saddle Crest development, located on Santiago Canyon Road just north of Cook’s Corner, is getting underway. Now, nearly five years after approval by the OC Board of Supervisors, work begins amidst a flurry of protests by canyon residents and others who wish to preserve Orange County’s natural lands.

In order to approve Saddle Crest, which violated many of the FTSP requirements, the board of supervisors, under the leadership of Bill Campbell, rewrote the plan by amending it. The amendments relaxed grading restrictions and density limits, reduced natural open space requirements and eliminated oak tree protections – the very elements intended to preserve the canyon’s character.

The guiding light
Specific plans are the governing land-use documents in a given community.  North Tustin has one.  Orange Park Acres has one.  Coto de Caza has one. Silverado-Modjeska has one, as does the Foothill-Trabuco area.  These plans were created in the 1970s, 80s and 90s to protect those communities’ unique characteristics.  Each resulted after months of public meetings, intense review, legal counsel, compromises, and were approved by the county.

At the same time Campbell’s board weakened the FTSP, it amended portions of the county’s general plan to allow more traffic on Santiago Canyon Road, and to enable future boards to pick and choose which portions of a specific plan they would adhere to when approving a development. The board of supervisors now has the ability to amend the general plan or a community’s specific plan at its discretion.  

That board “discretion” threatens the standing of every specific plan in the county, meaning residents of unincorporated areas can no longer depend on what’s contained in their land-use plans.  A future board can decide that setbacks between houses, drainage ditches and medians constitute “open space.” Supervisors may determine that large lots and low density don’t really define a community’s character; or that moving 1.9 million cubic yards of earth protects the environment, and that historic oaks can be replaced with acorns.

Clean up Bill’s mess
Soon after Supervisor Todd Spitzer was elected to replace the termed-out Bill Campbell, residents governed by the specific plans in his district created a coalition, and asked him to rescind those amendments that weakened specific plans countywide.

Spitzer has been instrumental in restoring North Tustin’s Specific Plan and reversing “spot zoning” amendments put in place by Campbell.  Emboldened by Spitzer’s support of his constituents in North Tustin, and spurred on by the fallen oaks, uprooted cactus habitats, and disturbed natural lands along Santiago Canyon Road, the coalition has once again urgently asked the supervisor to step in.

In a letter written by the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy, the coalition of 10 organizations has asked Spitzer “to reverse the General Plan and FTSP amendments put in place by Saddle Crest.” 

“Supervisor Spitzer,” the letter said, “you have been a supporter of the canyons, both in words and in action, and we appreciate your commitment to the preservation of the resources of this cherished area and its historical communities. The power to protect the canyons from inappropriate developments like Saddle Crest now rests with you. Please take swift action to correct this dangerous anomaly by reversing the Saddle Crest amendments.”

“The rural canyons are one of the crown jewels of Orange County, benefitting all of its citizens,” says Saddleback Canyons Conservancy co-founder Gloria Sefton.  “We need Supervisor Spitzer’s leadership to protect this special place for generations to come, and reversing the Saddle Crest amendments is an essential first step.”

Constituent coalition asks Spitzer to restore the integrity and protections of community specific plans