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Conservationists Cheer Trabuco Canyon Plan : Land-use: O.C. supervisors OK blueprint allowing up to 2,700 homes on 6,500 acres of rustic area.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Winning cheers from conservationists, the Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a unique blueprint for Trabuco Canyon aimed at balancing the area’s sedate rural flavor with the inevitable tide of development.

“This is the most restrictive plan for development that this county certainly has ever seen,” declared Board Chairman Gaddi H. Vasquez, who helped win over critics with a last-minute set of compromises.

The plan, reached after three years of often rancorous debate over the future of one of Orange County’s largest undeveloped areas, allows up to 2,700 homes to be built within about 6,500 acres in and around Trabuco Canyon.

But it also places some severe regulatory obstacles in the way of those houses, and it does away with several of the more controversial proposals for the canyon--including a four-lane highway cutting through the tree-canopied canyon and some commercial development around Cook’s Corner.

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Instead of road widenings and shopping centers, much of the focus in the canyon area will now be on the preservation of fabled oak trees and scenic vistas and on the establishment of more riding and hiking trails, officials said.

During about 50 public hearings on the Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan since 1988, area residents offered legal challenges, petitions and vitriolic attacks on a plan that they feared would endanger their rural enclave.

As one resident said at Tuesday’s board meeting, the community wanted to preserve “a part of Orange County that was not going to be red-tile roofs and stucco siding.”

Home to oak woodlands, ridgelines, streams and “mom-and-pop” boarding stables, the Trabuco Canyon area now has about 250 homes and serves as a quiet buffer between the Cleveland National Forest and the string of growing planned communities in Rancho Santa Margarita, Coto de Caza, and Robinson Ranch.

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Among many of the canyon area’s 1,000 residents, strip malls are anathema and businesses in general are scarce--with the bikers’ watering hole known as Cook’s Corner being the most notable exception. Even the idea of a gas station at the Cook’s Corner junction of Live Oak Canyon and Santiago Canyon roads provoked intense debate--and was ultimately scrapped this week under revisions offered by Vasquez.

“The carwash and the gas station (at Cook’s Corner) were the greatest offense, and that’s the greatest relief,” said Bruce Conn, a director of the Rural Canyon Conservation Fund, which was active in the debate.

Though the Trabuco plan was adopted by the supervisors by a 5-0 vote, it must still be given final approval by the board later this month after some minor revisions.

The board’s approval produced some grumbling among developers who complained that their property rights were being trampled.

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Among its many regulations, the plan caps property densities, imposes severe grading requirements, sets developments back from bluffs and scenic areas, and limits heights on some buildings.

To conservationists these were “unprecedented” and “revolutionary” safeguards. But some developers deemed them unwarranted intrusions.

“I think there are some good points in the plan,” conceded Thomas J. Trischler, a development consultant for the owner of an 89-acre nursery who tried unsuccessfully to clear the way for more moderate-priced homes on his land. “But there are a lot of concerned property owners out there too . . . who are afraid that this is going to make it difficult or impossible to build.”

Ray Chandos, a director of the conservation fund, said environmentalists will still have the burden of showing why future proposed developments could be dangerous. “But at least now we have the tools,” he said.

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Indeed, county officials predicted that the tough regulations imposed under the plan will probably mean that the 2,700-home cap will not be reached and that many sites will remain undeveloped--as local residents had hoped.

“Twenty years from now,” Vasquez said, “I suspect the integrity of what the community is today will still be intact.”

Even among business people, there was some general acceptance of the plan and its aims.

“It’s been an interesting process,” said Frank de Luna of Irvine, who owns the Cook’s Corner bar and had wanted to develop about 47,500 square feet of property for a motel and shops near the bar. Instead, the county approved only about 19,000 square feet for commercial use, putting his plans on hold.

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“I’ve done a lot of development, and (usually) you just go in and bulldoze and build buildings,” de Luna said. “This is the first time I’ve really been forced to listen and work with community people.”

Those community people--who in weeks and months past had attacked county officials over the Trabuco plan--instead spent much of the morning Tuesday lauding them. In a public hearing before the vote, speaker after speaker thanked the board for what one called its “strength, foresight and vision.”

The final plan, said canyon resident Diana Glass, “says a lot about the county’s sensitivity to the environment.”

Community activists gave much of the credit to Vasquez, who has often been mentioned as a candidate for higher office. And Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder called the chairman “a Solomon” for helping reach an agreeable plan.

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In a proposal made the day before the vote in an effort to forge a compromise with the plan’s critics, Vasquez proposed scaling back commercial development around Cook’s Corner, converting about 120 acres of planned residential land next to O’Neill Regional Park into open space, and plugging “loopholes” in grading requirements for agricultural users.

“Gaddi was very tough at saying no (to developers),” said Conn, a canyon resident. “He held the line very well, and he deserves a lot of the credit.”

Noting the sharp change in tone among the plan’s one-time critics, county Planning Commission Chairman Stephen Nordeck said: “The board brought together a cohesiveness of the people.”

The board heard from 25 speakers on the Trabuco plan but gave its unanimous approval after little discussion of its own.

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Vasquez told the audience simply: “I’m delighted that this day has come.”

And Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, who shares jurisdiction for the canyon area with Vasquez, said: “I think Orange County will be a better place because of this.”

The Future of Trabuco Canyon

The Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a development plan for 6,500 acres in and around Trabuco Canyon.

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* Eliminate a proposed four-lane highway through the canyon and severely scale back plans for widening Live Oak Canyon Road.

* Expand protections for the area’s oak trees and scenic ridges through stricter development guidelines.

* Allow up to 2,700 homes in the canyon and the surrounding area, with tight restrictions on grading, density and other factors.

* Block plans to build about 30 homes on a 120-acre site next to O’Neill Regional Park and reserve that land for open space.

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* Specify several sites in the area for limited commercial development, scaling back proposals for shops and businesses around Cook’s Corner.


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