For many years, development in south Orange County seemed to operate at full speed, with government playing largely the role of facilitator. Now, however, some of the price of a lack of oversight has become apparent. In the past few years alone, developers have continued the secret grading of sensitive areas of open space in the foothills.
What is different now, and what is laudable to see, is the resolve of the Board of Supervisors to take a tougher stand.
The supervisors have approved a schedule of fines and other civil-court penalties to serve with existing criminal misdemeanor punishments for violators. Under the new penalties, the county can collect up to $250 in fines for each day a property owner violates grading regulations or clears sensitive hillside property without a permit.
Moreover, perhaps more effective than the fines, which easily can be absorbed, is the ability of county officials to obtain restraining orders to halt grading that is not in compliance with county regulations.
Inspectors also can get warrants to gain access to sensitive lands under development. The action followed the county Environmental Management Agency's recent assignment of two inspectors to handle grading violations.
As Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez pointed out, the grading leaves land vulnerable. County officials note that clearings can alter hillside drainage routes seriously and precipitate landslides.
The new penalties signal a willingness to get tough and to send a message to those who have stalled the enforcement process by refusing access.
The county is to be commended for sending a proper signal of its willingness to crack down on careless and harmful land use practices.
With a firmer role as watchdog, the county either can deter wrongdoing or make compliance much more enforceable.