County’s dismissal of land-use plans challenged by lawsuit

JUNE 2018

By Tina Richards

A coalition of canyon community and environmental group residents has filed a lawsuit against Orange County and the Board of Supervisors, challenging its approval of an outdoor wedding venue that they say violates governing land-use plans and the zoning code.

The Board of Supervisors approved Red Rock Gardens’ request to host weddings and other events on residential property on Santiago Canyon Road, April 10.  The approval overruled county planning staff’s recommendation to deny the use permit because it violated the OC General Plan, the Silverado-Modjeska Specific Plan, and the areas A-1, general agricultural zoning, which does not permit commercial zoning.

The property owners twice applied for a commercial use permit in the early 2000s, but were denied because of incompatibility with surrounding land uses, traffic and other considerations.  Thereafter, the county granted temporary use permits for wedding events, but revoked the last one in 2005 due to code violations.

The best-laid plans
Courts have consistently ruled that general plans are the “holy grail of land-use planning,” providing assurances to communities and property owners that future development and onsite activities are compatible with their surroundings. Both the county General Plan and the Sil-Mod plan designate the property at 17521 Santiago Canyon Road as “rural residential,” that is, low-density single-family homes. 

Red Rock Gardens is also located within the Sil-Mod plan scenic highway overlay, which expressly prohibits commercial land use. 

Concerned citizens appeared in force at both the planning commission and board of supervisors meetings when the project was discussed. They cited the event center’s violation of county planning documents, and stressed that traffic from the events would make Santiago Canyon Road even more dangerous than it is currently. Opponents echoed the sentiments of county planners, who recommended that Red Rock’s request be denied.

The legal challenge filed in superior court, May 14, describes the questionable elements of the supervisors’ action by quoting some of the actual language from the county staff report. “The proposed project is not consistent with the existing land use because it proposes a commercial use in a designation intended for low-density, single-family residential development,” county planners stated.

Hiking down the aisle
The staff report further noted that, “the land adjacent to the project site is also designated as regional park open space; establishing a commercial land use would not be compatible.”  

Agriculture, outdoor recreation, and low intensity uses, which are compatible with “open space” are, according to county zoning, the intended uses of this zone.  The canyon coalition (and planning staff) assert that the proposed use for weddings and large events is not typically associated with an outdoor recreational use. It is a high intensity use as it relates to traffic and noise generation.

The lawsuit also challenges the county’s decision to approve the venue without benefit of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The California Environmental Quality Act requires an EIR when a project may cause significant adverse impacts on the environment, and to analyze such impacts as traffic, noise, wildlife, air, water and fire hazard. 

The coalition claims that foreseeable impacts are clear because the property is adjacent to Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park with wildlife habitat, and will produce noise and introduce traffic that is speeding up and slowing down on dangerous stretch of Santiago Canyon Road. The property also sits in a high fire zone. Those issues alone should have triggered an EIR analysis.

Instead, the county settled for a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND), a document that essentially says an EIR is not needed. The MND, the coalition says, was biased in favor of the project approval and “failed to constitute the full disclosure intended to objectively inform decision makers and the public of the project’s impacts, mitigation measures and alternatives.” The MND also failed to address traffic, noise, air and water quality, and wildlife impacts.

See you in court
“The county is giving special treatment to a single property owner by disregarding its own land use plans at the expense of the community and the environment,” Gloria Sefton, co-founder of the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy, part of the coalition that includes Rural Canyons Conservation Fund and Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks, said. “That leaves us no choice but to seek redress in court.”

The canyon coalition lawsuit was largely expected. During the public hearing, when the board was debating the event venue, county counsel told them that approval would, legally, “be risky.” Todd Spitzer, whose third district includes the event site, dismissed the risk, noting that the property owner had indemnified the county against any legal action resulting from the board’s decision. Spitzer pointed out that Red Rock Gardens had tried off and on for more than 10 years to secure a permit for large events, and that the property owner must have a legal theory that would favor his lawful right to use his residential acreage in that manner.  

“The financial liability is on the property owner,” Spitzer informed. “He should be allowed to test his theory in court.” Nabhan and Yola Simaan are, indeed, getting that chance.