Law Blocking Development on San Juan Hillside OKd

Times Staff Writer

Echoing a growing sentiment for preserving South County’s shrinking natural landscape, the San Juan Capistrano City Council on Tuesday night tentatively approved a new city law aimed at protecting hills and ridgelines from future development.

The ridgeline preservation law, passed unanimously by the five-member council, makes it illegal to build on 3,000 acres of steep hilltops and ridges that wind through the city.

“What we’re doing is tightening up or making stronger the (longtime city) policy that you shouldn’t develop on ridgelines,” Councilman Anthony L. Bland said before the council vote. “I support this measure.”

Final approval of the ordinance, which bars construction within 200 feet of a ridgeline’s peak, is expected at the council’s Sept. 19 meeting. But it may be challenged in court by one local developer, who has accused city officials of breaking a 10-year-old development agreement.

The ordinance, which includes an exemption process, replaces a temporary measure that was passed July 18.


That emergency ordinance was adopted to prevent a flood of last-minute development applications while city staff drafted the permanent statute, Mayor Gary L. Hausdorfer said.

Although the ordinance is the first to block development on ridgelines, Hausdorfer said that since 1974, the city’s hills and ridges have been marked for preservation by city officials.

Through the years, San Juan Capistrano officials prevented the destruction of ridgelines by rejecting hillside development projects as they were submitted to the city, the mayor said. However, City Atty. John R. Shaw recommended that the ordinance be drafted to ensure that the ridgelines remain untouched for years to come.

The city’s General Plan, a document outlining development goals for the city, says, “It is of prime importance to the city to preserve ridgelines.” But there was no law to back the preservation philosophy, city officials said.

“We need to make the policy of the General Plan clear,” City Manager Stephen B. Julian said. “This ordinance does that.”

Hausdorfer agreed that a law banning ridgeline development was necessary.

“This strengthens our own resolve to preserve ridgelines,” Julian said. “It simply is a more formal way, a more prudent way, of implementing the wishes of San Juan Capistrano citizens.”

The ordinance was opposed by local developer Robert Maurer, who said that he has planned to build a million-dollar estate on top of a ridgeline that cuts through property he owns. The home, located on a one-third-acre parcel, would offer a 360-degree view.

Maurer’s attorney, Roger A. Grable, said after the council vote that city officials were aware of his client’s intentions to build the estate as part of an agreement reached in 1979. That agreement allowed Maurer’s company, Coral Properties, to build 63 homes on a lower portion of his land.

Grable said the ordinance will cause his client undue financial hardship, adding that he will seek an exemption to the ordinance before its final passage. If that waiver is not granted, Grable said, he will file a lawsuit to recoup money Maurer expects to lose by not building the estate.

“We’re trying to work out a compromise,” Grable said. “We don’t want to have to go that route (to court). But unfortunately, it looks like we may have to.”

An exemption could be granted if the development does not change the appearance of the ridgeline and is compatible with all other zoning laws. However, City Atty. Shaw said the proposed estate would not fall under the criteria of the exemption clause.

Shaw told the council that he does not believe the city is violating any agreement Maurer made with the city, adding that he does not believe Maurer will suffer economically.

Community Planning Director Thomas G. Merrell said in a staff report that public concerns over “urbanization of southeast Orange County” outweigh private interests in preserving the rural skyline.

With large-scale development occurring in unincorporated areas to the north of the city, Merrell wrote, slow-growth measures such as the ridgeline preservation ordinance will ensure “a separate physical identity for the city and prevent it from becoming a continuous part of adjacent urban areas.”

Struggle in Laguna Beach

“Just look at our (undeveloped) ridgelines,” Hausdorfer said before the council vote. “You can tell where Capistrano ends and Laguna Niguel begins. The ridgelines are a sacred thing to the citizens of San Juan Capistrano.

“Without that (longtime) commitment, San Juan Capistrano would not have those ridgelines preserved today.”

The city’s push to preserve ridgelines comes at a time when officials in neighboring Laguna Beach are struggling to halt the destruction of that city’s rural system of canyons, ridges and rocky hilltops through what they called an Open Space Program.

Under that plan, Laguna Beach officials have begun buying private property in Laguna Canyon as a way to form a permanent natural barrier between the 62-year-old beach community and developments in Laguna Niguel and Aliso Viejo.

To that end, the council has reopened negotiations with John E. DeWitt to buy 195 acres of land he owns on Laguna Canyon Road near El Toro Road.

The council was considering using the power of eminent domain to acquire the land, but backed down at the urging of the city’s Open Space Commission, which recommended that city officials use land-taking powers only as “a last resort.”