Orange County has approved a plan to develop what many people see as the last important piece of the county's urban development puzzle. The Rancho Mission Viejo Ranch Plan, approved by the Board of Supervisors in November, proposes 14,000 housing units on 23,000 acres on the largest privately owned tract of land remaining in the county.

The development, which is to be phased in over several decades, would accommodate 30,000 residents and at least 16,000 jobs. The largely suburban plan calls for mostly single-family homes, three mixed-use centers and potentially 60 acres of land for affordable housing. The development would be similar to nearby Laguna Hills.

The site lies just north of San Clemente and east of Mission Viejo, and is bordered by the Cleveland National Forest to the east. Because of its size and mostly undeveloped status, the land is prized by developers and environmentalists alike.

Less than a month after the county approved the ranch plan, two lawsuits were filed against the county and the landowner, Rancho Mission Viejo. The first, by a group of environmental organizations, is primarily over environmental concerns. The groups argue the county did an inadequate environmental review, and failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act and other state laws. The second lawsuit, filed by the City of Mission Viejo, cites the inadequacy of infrastructure planning to handle the increased traffic load through its city, as well as a failure to identify sources of funding.

Although traffic is a local concern, the environment is the primary point of contention for a wide range of stakeholders. Despite the fact that the plan calls for 15,000 acres of open space - more than two-thirds the overall area - environmentalists are far from content.

“The development pattern of this plan is to build 'pods' of housing scattered within the overall planning boundary, the result of which would be isolated pockets of habitat of greatly diminished value.” said Dan Silver, president of the Endangered Habitats League, and a leader in the fight against the ranch plan.

Bryan Speegle, director of the Orange County Resources and Development Management Department, disagreed. “When you look at a map of the open space within the plan, it may look counter-intuitive,” Speegle explained. “We're used to seeing large, contiguous regions of open space. However, most of the species we're interested in protecting here don't migrate - they don't need large-scale linkages. We've done our best to locate development in such a way as to keep the environment intact.”

“The plan,” Speegle continued, “calls for conservation easements aimed at habitat protection, and will only allow limited other uses, mainly farming and ranching.”

Diane Gaynor, a Rancho Mission Viejo representative, presented another side to the story. “This land has a history of long-term leases,” she said. “There are nurseries, recycling centers, decades of weapon testing, and other uses on this land - thousands of acres where the habitat has already been marginalized. Those are the areas where we are focusing development.”

Environmentalists are not buying it, though. Silver and others see fragmented habitat, an inadequate environmental review, and another case of the developer calling the shots in Orange County. James Birkelund, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that the science behind the environmental review was inadequate, and that the real value of the habitat as well as the threat posed by development have not been revealed.

One of the major contentions is that the EIR conducted only a “program” level of analysis that relies heavily on future mitigation efforts, a course of action that project opponents find unacceptable given that the development agreement severely limits the county's future discretion to engage in and alter the development process. Opponents worry that the plan is filled with false promises for conservation while locking in development rights from the start.

At the heart of the matter for the Sierra Club and other activists are two areas of special concern - the San Mateo Creek watershed and Chiquita Canyon. According to the Sierra Club's Brittany McKee, the San Mateo is one of the last clean, non-dammed creeks in Southern California. The creek provides a linkage of great importance from the coast - where it terminates at famed Trestles Beach - all the way to its source in the mountains. And the Chiquita Canyon has been identified by scientists as one of the most sensitive and diverse habitats remaining along the coast. The land is prime habitat for the gnatcatcher, one of the most visible of the region's endangered species, as well as the coastal cactus toad, arroyo wren and other rare species.

“We are not interested in blocking this project,” said McKee. “But we will not stand for anything less than total protection of these two environments.”

The landowners and county have recognized the significance of these spots and have placed them and two other areas in “planning reserves,” which amount to about 3,800 acres all told. According to Gaynor, these reserves were put in place to await the finalization of the region's Natural Communities Conservation Plan (NCCP) - initiated by state and federal resource agencies in 1993 to address protection the region's natural resources - and the alignment of a transportation corridor before going forward with development plans.

Gaynor contends that the original development plans have been scaled back dramatically in those areas in light of their ecological value. McKee and other environmentalists, however, worry that the reserve designation offers no guarantee of protection, and likely nothing more than a short lag time in developing those areas.

The ranch plan's relationship with the NCCP is one of the most contentious issues. As its stands, the Rancho Mission Viejo Ranch Plan was approved by the county Board of Supervisors despite testimony from the Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which are part of the NCCP agreement, that the plan does not meet the NCCP's guidelines.

Silver, of the Endangered Habitats League, complained that the plan superceded the NCCP.

“How,” asked Silver, “can you have an NCCP, which is supposed to at least consider development plans concurrently with habitat plans, when all the development has been entitled and not a single binding agreement has been put in place for open space and habitat? They have essentially foreclosed on the NCCP. The NCCP is not close to being finished, it is finished. It's dead.”

The City of Mission Viejo has its own concerns about the project. While the city supports the development, citing a regional housing shortage, the city is critical of the project's transportation plan. Councilman Lance MacLean said the project will dump added commuter traffic headed for Interstate 5 into Mission Viejo where the Ortega Highway dead ends on the city's surface streets. The city is demanding that the county identify additional road capacity and commit to funding that capacity.

The county's Speegle objects. “The whole county uses the same socioeconomic projections and model to determine transportation impacts of projects like this,” Speegle said. “Mission Viejo has signed off on the model, they just don't like the results.”

At the heart of the matter is a disagreement over the route those commuters are likely to take. MacLean said commuters will turn north on the surface streets to get to northbound I-5 to go to work. But the traffic model indicates that motorists will take a less intrusive route by first going south.

The city also is upset over what it believes is a failure by the county to identify sufficient funding sources for the needed improvements.

“It's well understood that the amount of money required to address the region's transportation challenges is $356 million,” MacLean said. “Rancho Mission Viejo is only contributing $144 million. Who's going to pay for the other $212 million? We believe the ranch is paying their fair share, but the county has a responsibility as the permitting agency to identify the rest of the money before this project goes through.”

“Without that money, we won't be able to make needed improvements, and we'll all be stuck with the problem,” MacLean said.

Speegle, however, said it would be unfair to rest the entire financial obligation on the process for a single project.

James Birkelund, Natural Resources Defense Council, (310) 434-2314.
Diane Gaynor, Rancho Mission Viejo, (949) 240-3363.
Lance MacLean, City of Mission Viejo, (949) 470-3050.
Brittany McKee, Sierra Club, (949) 842-0574.
Dan Silver, Endangered Habitats League, (213) 804-2750.
Bryan Speegle, Orange County, (714) 834-2300.