The Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously denied an appeal by three community groups to overturn approval of a new event center in the Modjeska Canyon area.
The county's Planning Commission approved a conditional use permit for the facility on Jan. 24 despite pleas from residents and community groups that it could interfere with wildlife, cause safety issues and disturb neighbors.
Under the terms of the approval, Red Rock Gardens will host up to 12 weddings, anniversaries, parties and fundraisers a year with a maximum of 200 guests at each event.
The Saddleback Canyons Conservancy, Rural Canyons Conservation Fund and Inter-Canyon League, all resident groups devoted to the canyons, appealed the commission's decision on a number of grounds.
The facility's location on Santiago Canyon Road, which winds through some of the least-developed parts of Orange County, was a cause for concern for safety reasons.
Gloria Sefton, co-founder of the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy, said by phone days before the meeting that increased traffic from the event center would heighten the likelihood of accidents. The narrow, serpentine road is considered one of the county's more dangerous.
The groups also were concerned about noise disturbing neighbors and wildlife.
They said the issues weren't adequately addressed in the project's mitigated negative declaration, which determines the impact of the facility on the environment. The center is next to the Whiting Ranch Red Rock wilderness area, a popular hiking spot.
The groups contend that the event center violates the county's general plan, the Silverado-Modjeska Specific Plan and the zoning code because the site is a residential area.
"The big picture here is that we have these planning documents that are intended to keep this area beautiful and safe — this is an erosion of those principles," Sefton said. "To the extent that this property owner can obtain this kind of leeway from the law, other property owners — there are many in these rural canyons who have big properties — are going to say, 'Well, why can't I do that and turn my home into a profit center as well?'"
The event center has been proposed at various times over the years and iterations have been rejected by the county.
About two dozen speakers came to oppose or support the facility during Tuesday's meeting.
Many opponents spoke about long-running concerns that have been cited throughout the project's years-long consideration.
Derek Bayles, who lives across the street from the property, said that due to road safety concerns, approving the project would be "endangering the safety of the neighbors for the economic gain of one family."
Many speakers also showed up to support the property owners, Nabhan and Yola Simaan.
Mark Levy, a Modjeska Canyon resident, said the Simaans have supported the community for decades and are trustworthy and loyal to their community.
After public comments, supervisors discussed conditions for the site's approval.
Supervisor Shawn Nelson asked senior deputy county counsel Nicole Walsh to clarify her legal position. She said she didn't think the project was consistent with the general plan, specific plan or zoning code.
"I advised it was likely risky moving forward to recommend approval of a project that could be in violation of those three county documents," Walsh said.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who represents the district where the event center will be, felt he safeguarded against any legal issues by having staff negotiate a side-agreement with the Simaans where they would pay the legal fees if they were litigated against and lost.
"I wanted to make sure that if this was litigated, and the applicant lost, the county wouldn't be on the hook for attorney's fees," Spitzer said. "This is a risk that's on the applicant and he gets to test what he's been trying to test for 20 years. So he is going to bear the ultimate responsibility financially."
Spitzer also added another condition of approval that a noise monitoring device must always be kept on the property and the county's legal limit of an average of 65 decibels over a one hour period cannot be exceeded.
Chairman Andrew Do said his decision to approve was largely informed by the county's code, which already allows non-commercial properties to have special events four times a year with 500 guests at each.
"In this case, property rights outweigh the philosophical impact of the specific plan," Do said.
The Simaans provided an emailed statement a few hours after the decision.
"My wife and I would like to thank everyone from Orange County who took time to work on, express and consider everyone's views on this project," the statement said. "We especially appreciate the efforts of the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors in diligently deliberating and weighing all factors.
"This result shows that, with perhaps a lot of perseverance, citizens of Orange County can feel they will have their issues dealt with sincerely, compassionately and justly."