San Juan Leads the Way in Move to Preserve Hills

The hills of some Orange County communities are alive with different kinds of music. In some areas it is the sounds of bulldozers and earthmovers carving up the canyons and ridgelines, and in others it is residents in the lowlands bemoaning the loss of their scenic skyline.

As acreage in the flatlands becomes scarcer, builders are looking to the hills, where view lots are a valuable commodity in the real estate market. The threat of hillside development is putting new pressures on local government. It is being pulled on one side by people who want hillside view lots and on the other side by people in the flatlands who, when they look to the horizon, want to see ridgelines, not rooftops.

Fortunately, the San Juan Capistrano City Council for years has been dedicated to preserving that city’s rural skyline. Now, development pressure has prompted the city to put its longstanding policy of forbidding development on ridgelines into a formal ordinance that will ban construction within 200 feet of a ridgeline’s peak.

The ordinance, which allows for some exemptions, is necessary. All development cannot, and should not, be halted. But government does have a responsibility to the environment. The hills are a natural resource, not something to cut and reshape to suit new residential developments. In the past, some hillsides that should have been preserved for posterity were overdeveloped. Scenic backgrounds were lost forever. If protections like the ones being enacted in San Juan Capistrano are widely adopted, no more will be.