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Call of ‘Affordable Housing’ Drowns Out Call of the Wild : * Supervisors Had a Chance to Save Rare Canyon Habitat--and Blew It

All roads lead to the Board of Supervisors in Orange County’s planning process. The supervisors appoint the planning commissioners and are responsible in the end for county planning decisions. They ought to be ready to ask questions, and not simply sign off on projects.

The role of the supervisors was apparent at a sharp exchange during a public meeting this month between the board and residents concerned about the Las Flores Planned Community, south of Rancho Santa Margarita. At the explosive Dec. 5 meeting, residents showed understandable frustration with the supervisors’ role in a process that too often seems geared more to facilitating development than to holding it to scrutiny.

The residents had come looking for a forum of last resort to express concerns about the fate of one of Southern California’s richest wildlife habitats. But the board gave no evidence of sharing those concerns; it reacted as if it were the last in a series of synchronized green traffic lights in the approval process. Ready approval was given to building of up to 2,500 homes next to an environmentally fragile strip of O’Neill Regional Park. The one board member to vote against approval, Roger R. Stanton, was concerned about affordable housing and not at all about the environment.

The board had this lack of concern even though the county’s own consultant had raised serious questions during the fall about allowing building so close to Arroyo Trabuco, a lush creek-bed canyon that is home to the county’s dwindling deer population, more than 60 varieties of birds and the largest oak and sycamore forest in the region.

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And along the way, two of five county planning commissioners had found some merit in the recommendation of a consultant working for the county’s harbors, beaches and parks division. It was to trim about 9 more acres from the project proposal to provide a larger buffer zone to prevent the destruction of wildlife. A third vote proved elusive; the proposal was denied by the commission, 3-2.

Earlier in the fall, one commissioner, C. Douglas Leavenworth, had expressed dismay at not having the benefit of testimony from harbors, beaches and parks officials, mysteriously absent from an important meeting. Instead, he heard from Planning Director Thomas Mathews, champing at the bit for approval and cautioning the commission not to worry. The commission readily agreed and moved the project along, despite unresolved concerns about an endangered canyon.

The supervisors might also have had reason along the way to wonder whether two commissioners had shown good judgment in some public statements. One, Stephen A. Nordeck, made the astonishing complaint that commissioners were being asked to protect wildlife without really knowing what was in the canyon. Peter DeSimone, a National Audubon Society official, had the obvious response: “If the commission feels we don’t have enough information, then why are we to this point?” And Commissioner Roger D. Slates tastelessly joked about issuing hunting licenses to remove the conflict between deer and urban development.

All through the process, county officials were intoxicated with the magic words: “affordable housing.” They made much of the fact that 60% of the housing in the new development will have to be priced below $250,000, and cast the opposition as whining extremists. But the developer has acknowledged an intent to build in that price range anyway. The county simply punted on the opportunity to push development back a safe distance from an endangered wildlife area while still getting “affordable housing.”

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The supervisors, who should have taken the long view, could have asked the obvious question: Were a few extra units worth the sacrifice of a canyon? But these trustees for Orange County’s environment didn’t wonder. In the future, they should. Remember that it is they who set the tone for the planning process. It is they who must ultimately answer for what becomes of the land.


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