Bulldozer, County Were Too Impatient : Officials Should Have Erred on Side of Caution Before Approving Land Clearing


Waiting for the details of a judge’s ruling ought to be simple enough, even for the most impatient bulldozer operator, champing at the bit to clear a tract of land. But if a developer understandably wants to get on with business, at the very least, the county officials who are charged with granting the necessary permit might be expected to err a day or two on the side of caution.

All of this came into question recently when a judge overturned approval for the large Las Flores planned community project. When the order was first issued, nobody knew immediately whether an entirely new environmental impact report was needed, or whether simply making adjustments in a traffic plan that was under question was needed. But instead of waiting for the written order to be served on the county, at a crucial moment, the county decided to allow the Santa Margarita Co. to continue clearing the site of a planned 2,500-home community. It concluded that there was no basis to modify the limited permit that already had been given. By the time the judge clarified his ruling, more than half the 380 acres of coastal sage scrub had been bulldozed.

What happened is important when considered against the backdrop of the gnatcatcher debate. The fate of the elusive, controversial bird is on hold for now, while the state Fish and Game Commission takes testimony under advisement before deciding whether or not it is endangered. The tiny bird, which inhabits sage scrub in Southern California, has been much in the news of late.


But time is of the essence on both sides of this debate, a point worth making while the commissioners deliberate. And nowhere was the press of a deadline--and the irreversible nature of clearing sage scrub for development--more apparent than in the drama that unfolded last month in the days leading up to the hearing. And that’s where the county’s planners and lawyers come in. They ought to be as committed to deliberation as they are to facilitating development.

But by the time Superior Court Judge Leonard Goldstein’s ruling was received, it was too late. The county ordered a suspension of land clearance, very much in the way one closes a barn door after the horse escapes. Moral of the story: Land lost while a ruling is in the mail is land lost forever.

In such cases, the county has a responsibility to ensure, in good faith, that a judge’s intention is clearly understood before the bulldozers start up their engines.