By Tina Richards
A superior court judge ruled against the county, in a lawsuit filed by the Save the Canyons Coalition challenging the use of a residential property on Santiago Canyon Road as an event venue. In so doing, the court upheld the authority of specific plans that govern land-use in a given area.
Judge William Claster ruled, March 15, that while the county’s general plan has broad language recognizing competing priorities, the Silverado-Modjeska Specific Plan (Sil-Mod) does not allow commercial facilities of any type in the area. Designated rural residential and encompassing a “scenic highway" corridor, “there is nothing in the Sil-Mod Plan that supports an argument that the provisions are merely general policies subject to exceptions,” he wrote.
At issue was a Conditional Use Permit for Red Rock Chateau Wedding Center, approved by the planning commission in January 2018 and the Board of Supervisors in April. The owners of a four-acre property at 17251 Santiago Canyon Road wanted to hold up to 35 weddings, bar mitzvahs or parties a year. They had been denied conditional use permits in 2001, 2002 and 2003, but had been issued temporary permits for 16 events. Owners Nabhan and Yola Simaan tried again in 2008, but their petition, deemed incomplete at the time, was not considered until 2017.
County planning staff determined that the proposed activities were prohibited by the Sil-Mod Plan and were inconsistent with Santiago Canyon Road’s scenic highway designation. It also found that the project was inconsistent with the “objectives, policies and general land-use” in the county’s General Plan.
Residents of Silverado and Modjeska Canyon agreed with planning staff’s analysis, arguing before the planning commission and Board of Supervisors that a commercial wedding venue was not supported by any land-use plans, would create hazardous traffic conditions on Santiago Canyon Road, and would be noisy, disturbing neighbors and wildlife in nearby Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park.
During the planning commission hearing, County Attorney Nicole Walsh warned that approving the CUP would generate a lawsuit that the county would most likely lose. When the permit application came before the Board of Supervisors, that body circumvented the potential fiscal liability by getting the Simaans to indemnify the county and agree to pay all court costs.
The board justified its approval by claiming that the outdoor weddings and parties constituted “outdoor recreation,” which is allowed under the General Plan.
Save the Canyons Coalition made good on Walsh’s prediction, asking the court to find that the county’s approval violated planning and zoning laws, the General Plan, the Sil-Mod Plan, zoning ordinances and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Judge Claster did not agree with the county’s claim that weddings fall into the outdoor recreation designation, which included hiking, camping, picnicking, and equestrian centers. He also ruled that CEQA had been violated because the venue’s potential traffic impacts should have triggered an environmental review. The evidence, he found, established that 75 or more vehicles would travel to and from the wedding venue at about the same time, all on Santiago Canyon Road. The road is narrow and vehicles travel at high speeds. Accidents on this road are well documented. “Moreover,” he wrote, “a reasonable inference can be drawn that patrons will have had alcoholic drinks.” He further noted that that there was no evidence the county’s proposed remedies – a turn pocket, valets, temporary warning signs – would improve traffic safety.
Of broader import is Judge Claster’s confirmation that the county General Plan consists of both the plan document itself and the Sil-Mod Plan. He noted that the county’s land-use element, adopted in 2015, states, “Where specific plans have been adopted but are not reflected in detail in the General Plan level, the overall density and character represented on the land-use element map are assumed to reflect the specific plan regulations.”
Lapse in leadership
“It’s too bad we couldn’t trust our elected officials to reject the project based on its clear inconsistency with land-use regulations,” said Gloria Sefton, co-founder of Saddleback Canyons Conservancy, which formed the coalition with Rural Canyons Conservation Fund and Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks. “Nonetheless, we are gratified by Judge Claster’s thoughtful analysis and ruling. This outcome restores the integrity of the planning regulations and protects the rural canyons.”
Ray Chandos, secretary/treasurer of Rural Canyons Conservation Fund, added, “These planning documents are like contracts with the community, a pledge that land will be used according to agreed limitations that benefit everyone. The supervisors thumbed their noses at that contract –and the community–for a single property owner.”
“My client would have never had to bring this action,” said John G. McClendon, the attorney who represented Save the Canyons Coalition, “if the county’s appointed and elected officials had heeded the caution of the county’s counsel and planning staff that approving the project would violate the law.”
Court rules that Red Rock event center
violates governing Specific Plan