Foothills Sentry - February 2024

Page 3 Foothills Sentry February 2024 By Ray Chandos After two decades of hiberna- tion and private negotiations, a 181-unit plan for the Saddle- back Meadows site on El Toro Road near Cook’s Corner finally emerged, near full-grown, at the Oct. 11 meeting of the Foothill/ Trabuco Specific Plan Review Board. Saddleback Meadows has been a lightning rod for public opposi- tion since 1980, when county su- pervisors approved a plan for 705 mobile homes on the 222-acre site adjoining O’Neill Regional Park and the Ramakrishna Mon- astery. Four decades, a bankrupt- cy and several lawsuits later, the controversy resurfaced as rattled Trabuco Canyon residents asked county contract planner Kevin Canning if the current 181-unit plan was a “done deal” after he revealed that a detailed area plan and subdivision map had already been approved administratively, a year earlier, without a public hearing. All that was on the Re- view Board’s agenda, Canning said, was a use permit establish- ing building setbacks and other details. That permit would next proceed to the county zoning administrator for final approval, without a public hearing. Abandoned Specific Plan The Foothill/Trabuco Specific Plan, enacted in 1991 to preserve and protect Trabuco Canyon’s unique natural resources and ru- ral character, charges the Review Board with “conducting public meetings for the purpose of con- sidering proposed … General Plan amendments, Specific Plan amendments, area plans, subdi- vision maps, site plans, use per- mits, and variance permits.” After Review Board scrutiny, use per- mits and area plans also require a public hearing and vote by the County Planning Commission. When asked why the “approved” Saddleback Meadows area plan and subdivision map had never been submitted to the Review Board or the Planning Commis- sion, Canning insisted that the ad- ministrative approvals were legal and proper. Following citizen complaints the following day to County Su- pervisor Donald Wagner and the Director of OC Public Works James Treadaway, the agency’s Deputy Director Justin Kirk con- ceded that a public hearing be- fore the Planning Commission on the use permit would be held. No date has yet been set for that hearing. Out of date Residents also questioned the propriety of the current project’s environmental documentation — two addendums to a 1997 Envi- ronmental Impact Report (EIR) Trabuco housing tract bypassing public review; residents protest Saddleback Meadows “done deal” prepared for an earlier 318-unit proposal. State law only allows the use of an EIR addendum for minor changes in a project or its environmental baseline, but it is often used by developers to avoid the public exposure and review required for an updated EIR. Although the current 181-unit proposal has generally less en- vironmental impact than the ear- lier 318-unit proposal, residents pointed out that the environmen- tal baseline has changed substan- tially since 1997, elevating the importance of the project’s im- pacts cumulatively. Two other sprawl develop- ments—Saddle Crest, with 65 homes along Santiago Canyon Road, and the 926-unit Por- tola Center along Glenn Ranch Road—have been approved, and will increase traffic on El Toro and Santiago Canyon Roads. The Portola Center also obstructs a wildlife corridor running through Saddleback Meadows that was supposed to connect O’Neill and Whiting Ranch Regional Parks, and link two subregions of the state and federal Natural Commu- nity Conservation Plan (NCCP). Line of fire Residents of the neighboring Hidden Ridge community com- plained that the project includes only a single access street off of El Toro Road, creating a traffic bottleneck during fire evacuation, and funneling traffic through an emergency gate onto their sin- gle escape route. The parcel lies within a Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone in a Local Respon- sibility Area, according to Cal Fire. Residents also questioned building houses on the fire-prone site when many insurers are can- celling homeowners’ policies in the area, leaving them scrambling to find insurance protection that often costs thousands more. Concerned neighbors also asked where children would at- tend school, noting that local schools are already carrying extra weight with the recent residential expansions in the area. And infrastructure is lacking on the site. The Trabuco Can- yon Water District would have to build a new reservoir and other water infrastructure to serve the development. Ratepayers are asking who will foot the bill for this, especially when the district has just significantly raised water rates. It doesn’t fit “Development needs to be in areas where infrastructure al- ready exists, not on open space at the wildland-urban interface, especially with the fires we’ve been experiencing,” said Gloria Sefton, Trabuco Canyon resident and co-founder of the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy. The state’s 30x30 initiative to protect 30 percent of its natural lands and waters by 2030 was recently codified into law, which means that funding to preserve parcels such as this could become reality. Saddleback Meadows has been on the Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks “Green Vision Map” for years and offers an op- portunity to help reach that 30x30 goal. In response to repeated audi- ence questions about the purpose of a meeting to discuss an appar- ent “done deal,” board members closed the meeting by advising the audience to contact the dis- trict county supervisor, Donald Wagner at (714) 834-3330, or . A proposed 181-unit housing development in the hills of Trabuco Can- yon is counter to the area’s long respected specific plan and was an un- welcome surprise to residents.