By Gloria Sefton

An expensive (and avoidable) legal battle for the rural canyons has finally reached its unceremonious ending. The appeal on “Red Rock Gardens,” a proposed commercial event venue at a large private residence on Santiago Canyon Road in Silverado, was dismissed.

Two years ago, the Orange County Board of Supervisors approved commercial use at the residential site adjacent to Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park after nearly 20 years of back-and-forth with the property owner, who, during that time, was cited for numerous code violations for conducting commercial events without proper permits.

In approving the project, the board defied not only the community’s objections to transforming the rural residence to an event venue, they also defied Orange County’s General Plan, the Silverado-Modjeska Specific Plan, and zoning for the property, all of which prohibit commercial use there.

County planning staff consistently recommended denial because of the clear conflict with land-use regulations and, when pressed by the board and then-Third District Supervisor Todd Spitzer, even county counsel cautioned that approval of the project was risky, for the same reasons.


What should have been a straight-forward denial instead got muddled by the persistent pleas of the property owner to allow private weddings, parties, fundraisers and other outdoor events. An indemnification agreement, which Supervisor Spitzer made sure the project applicant signed, ensured the county would not be “on the hook financially” for the approval, given the likelihood that the court would overturn it. This was the shield the county needed to wash its hands of the bad decision.

By giving in to the property owner’s persistence, instead of holding fast to land-use regulations, decision makers – from the Planning Commission to the Board of Supervisors – did an immense disservice not only to the public and the environment, but also to the naïve property owner, by approving a project resting on very shaky legal ground. The public was then handed the job of suing the county and the property owner; and, the property owner was on the hook for all legal costs.

The rural canyons – Trabuco, Modjeska, and Silverado – emanate from the backdrop of the Santa Ana Mountains and contain an abundance of natural resources, such as oak and sycamore trees, geological wonders, waterways, and, of course, wild open spaces, all of which provide habitat for wildlife and refuge for people. The rural canyons are a venerated place, a site people want spared from the monotonous developments that define most of Orange County.


Rural Santiago Canyon Road connects the canyons with a 12-mile uninterrupted stretch of winding, hilly highway loved by cyclists, bikers and motorists. With its bucolic scenery, the designated scenic highway corridor offers a glimpse into Orange County’s natural heritage. But it is notoriously dangerous. The approval of Red Rock Gardens did not adequately take into account the impacts to traffic and safety.

In the rural canyons, land-use plans are the tools that make the area special. The plans are like a “covenant” between local government and citizens setting out agreed limitations that benefit everyone. Respecting the plans is paramount to protecting this specialness.

Supes step out; public steps in
So, when county supervisors made the decision that flouted the plans and failed to analyze environmental and other impacts, they pushed this responsibility onto the public, which then had no choice but to take legal action or live with the bad decision.

Our public interest group “Save the Canyons Coalition” stepped into action to challenge the illegal Red Rock Gardens approval in court – and won. It’s not a surprise that the “win” was based on inconsistencies with the county’s planning documents, the zoning code and a lack of proper environmental analysis of the project’s impacts.

With the two-year legal challenge now over, Save the Canyons Coalition is vindicated. But the Board of Supervisors should reflect hard on this result, which was exactly what county planning staff and counsel predicted. The community, too, is vindicated. And though the victory is good, it was a fight that never needed to happen.

Gloria Sefton, a Trabuco Canyon resident, is co-founder of the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy, which formed the coalition with Rural Canyons Conservation Fund and Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks.

photo by Cameron Sefton

June 2020

Guest Commentary:

Land-use plans upheld in OC rural canyons