Supervisors write their own rules to approve commercial canyon event center

By Tina Richards

A proposed outdoor event center on Silverado Canyon Road was approved by the Board of Supervisors, April 10, despite its noncompliance with the county general plan, the Silverado-Modjeska Specific Plan and the zoning code, which all define the area as “rural residential” and prohibit commercial use.

Led by Supervisor Todd Spitzer, Red Rock Gardens, a residential property, will be allowed to host 12 weddings, parties or fundraising events each with up to 200 guests per year. The property owner had attempted to get county approvals for such activities four times previously, but was denied. County planning staff and County Deputy Attorney Nicole Walsh recommended denial yet again because it violated three county documents.

Because the property resides in Spitzer’s third district, his board colleagues followed his lead in approving the event center. Spitzer appeared to support the venue as long as the county had no responsibility.  Noise, for example.  If an event exceeded county decibel limits, Red Rock  could be cited.  “It’s on the property owner,” Spitzer said.

No risk to county
He also noted that the owner had agreed to indemnify the county on any legal challenges to the supervisors’ approval. Red Rock will be responsible for any legal fees. 

The planning commission had OK’d the venue in January, ruling that it could be considered “outdoor recreation,” which is allowed under the county code.  The Saddleback Canyons Conservancy, Rural Canyons Conservation Fund and Inter-Canyon League appealed that decision, citing traffic safety issues, unanalyzed impacts on wildlife at neighboring Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park, and the commission’s disregard of clear language in the county plans prohibiting the commercial use of residential property in that location. They further challenged the notion that weddings and parties, unlike hiking and horseback riding, are “outdoor recreation.”

Canyon residents offered the same arguments at the board hearing on the appeal.  Silverado Canyon Road is already known for accidents, with six fatalities occurring within the last year. Red Rock is located near a blind curve where vehicles reach speeds of 65 mph or more. Party-goers entering and exiting the property are “a recipe for disaster.”

Impacts understated 
Project opponents also noted that the county did not ask for an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) because the venue’s impact was considered insignificant. Several argued that an EIR was, in fact, needed. 

Traffic studies did not include vehicle trips generated by housing developments currently being built down the road. Noise studies ignored wildlife, as did the impacts of event lighting. 

Spitzer told the board that the property owner should be allowed “to test his theory in court.”  “He’s assuming all the risk, all the financial liability,” Spitzer said, “we’re not on the hook.”

Supervisor Shawn Nelson asked Deputy Attorney Walsh what advice she could give the board. 

“All I can say,” she answered, “is that the project violates the county General Plan, the Sil-Mod plan and probably county zoning.”

Documents be darned
The board decided that the plans and zoning ordinances could be overlooked. Chairman Andrew Do asked how much weight should be given to planning documents, in general, because staff routinely uses them as a basis to recommend approval or denial of a given project.  “We need to direct staff in that regard,” he suggested, “because these appeals keep coming to us from the third district.”

The vote to deny the appeal was 5-0.

During public comments, a canyon resident recalled a remark made by a county supervisor back in 1979: “County planning is what three supervisors say it is on a given afternoon.”