Guest Commentary

County supervisors pave way for commercialization of rural canyons


By Gloria Sefton
John Adams said, “We are a nation of laws, not of men.” This tenet is critical to our democracy. But we’re seriously eroding this tenet when it comes to land use regulations in Orange County. 
This time, the county ignored the Orange County General Plan, the Silverado-Modjeska Specific Plan, and county zoning by approving a commercial project – Red Rock Gardens – at a site on Santiago Canyon Road clearly designated for residential use only. This was done not by amending those long-standing plans, which would have involved community input and environmental studies. This was done by a simple discretionary vote.

The proposed Red Rock Gardens is a private residence on more than three acres on two-lane rural Santiago Canyon Road in Silverado Canyon. According to county records, since 2000, the owners have tried, and until now, failed to turn their residence into a commercial event center for weddings, fundraisers and private parties. The county rightly denied the previous applications because of clear inconsistency with the residential designation of the property, according to the general plan and Silverado-Modjeska Specific Plan, and concerns about noise impacts to residents and wildlife, traffic safety, and conflicts with the fire code. In the early 2000s, the owners held wedding events under temporary use permits granted by the county, but the county revoked the last use permit in 2005 because of code violations and nonconformance.

But perseverance apparently pays off. The property owner came back in 2017 with a plan for 20 outdoor special events per year, each with 200 guests. Even though county staff continued to red flag all of the inconsistencies of the land-use plans and zoning, the planning commission decided this time that it had discretion to disregard the clear language of these regulations. In January, the commissioners approved the event center, initially capping the events to 12 per year, but signaling a willingness to lift the cap depending on how things go.

The Saddleback Canyons Conservancy and Rural Canyons Conservation Fund filed a joint appeal of the planning commission’s approval. The Inter-Canyon League also filed an appeal of the commission’s approval.

Our groups were hopeful that Third District Supervisor Todd Spitzer would realize the clear error of the planning commission in approving a commercial event center in a residential area on a dangerous stretch of Santiago Canyon Road and would grant our appeal. 

We had hope because, in 2016, after focusing on the enforceability of the Silverado-Modjeska Specific Plan, Supervisor Spitzer wrote a memo to the OC Public Works director indicating that the plan “contains legally enforceable policies and guidelines” and requesting county staff to “resume complying with and enforcing the Sil-Mod plan and its conditions.”

The Silverado-Modjeska Specific Plan explicitly prohibits commercial facilities in any residential category. Moreover, Red Rock Gardens lies within the plan’s Scenic Highway Overlay, which explicitly prohibits commercial land uses. This should have been an open-and-shut case.

Even county counsel warned that the approval was “risky.” But as reflected by his comments at the April 10 appeal hearing, Spitzer apparently felt shielded from that risk because the property owner will need to sign an indemnification agreement that will hold him liable for all costs of litigation against the county. Our elected officials charged with making critical land-use decisions should not govern by pushing their responsibility to the courts.

Why does any of this matter? Because without adherence to the laws governing land use, we have a free-for-all. The courts have said that zoning is like a contract. Zoning assures that all parties agree to use their land in accordance with certain restrictions, and that such mutual restriction can enhance total community welfare.

Our elected officials are making exceptions to clear rules, shielded by side agreements that allow them to make bad decisions without any financial harm. Could this happen in a neighborhood near you? Given this precedent, apparently, yes. Therein lies the erosion of our nation of laws.

Gloria Sefton is president of the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy.