Study finds canyons land use plan legally binding

By Ray Chandos

The Silverado-Modjeska Specific Plan (SMSP) is the law of the land in the county’s  unincorporated rural canyon areas, according to a 19-page legal analysis prepared by a prominent Orange County attorney specializing in land use and environmental cases. 

A coalition of canyon organizations commissioned the study, after county planning officials told shocked residents, in April, that the SMSP’s controls on development,  including  limits  on grading and building  densities, were not enforceable.  Enacted by a resolution of county supervisors in  1977,  these  controls “are not regulatory and provide guidelines  and  policies  only,” said  Colby Cataldi,  deputy  director  of  Orange County Public Works, due to the plan’s age and  method of enactment. To be legally binding, a new SMSP would be required, said Cataldi, at an estimated cost of $1.6 million and three years of work.

But the new study by John McClendon of Liebold McClendon &  Mann  concludes  otherwise: the existing SMSP “is not rendered ineffectual on account of it having been adopted by resolution and that its provisions are sufficiently ‘fundamental,  mandatory and clear’ for the county and the courts to enforce them.” California law requires every city and county to enact a general plan, the study explains, as “a constitution for all future development” and it is its single most important  planning  document. Once a county or city  has adopted a general plan, it may prepare more detailed specific plans -- like the SMSP -- to implement the general plan for all or part of the area covered by the general plan.

After analyzing relevant county codes, state statutes, general plan guidelines, and court cases, McClendon  concludes: “To the extent the county or anyone else is either seeing tooth decay or no teeth at all in the Sil-Mod Specific Plan, I would suggest they take a closer look.”

The  four  canyon  groups,  Inter-Canyon League, Saddleback Canyons Conservancy,  Canyon Land  Conservation  Fund,  and Rural  Canyons Conservation Fund,  commissioned  the  study after  County  Supervisor  Todd Spitzer, whose third district includes the SMSP area, acknowledged  Cataldi’s  analysis,  but wrote that he also invited “a formal alternative opinion, which I believe will be useful to advance the discussion.”  The groups have submitted the study to Spitzer for his response, and posted it online at

Ray Chandos is the secretary/treasurer of the Rural Canyons Conservation Fund.

Indian rocks of Black Star Canyon (file photo)