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RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA : Audubon Suit Says Developer Pollutes

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The National Audubon Society has sued the owner of the Dove Canyon country club and housing development, contending that water runoff has contaminated large portions of a creek and caused ecological damage in Starr Ranch, a wildlife sanctuary near the Cleveland National Forest.

Describing the conduct leading to the contamination as “willful, oppressive and malicious,” the lawsuit--filed last week in Orange County Superior Court--asks for “millions of dollars” in damages for breach of recorded covenants, private and public nuisance and trespass.

It also seeks an injunction against further contamination.

The contamination, the suit alleges, is “harmful to the delicate ecological environment in the sanctuary,” thus damaging the “fragile ecosystem” of the creek and threatening its continued existence as a natural habitat.

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Mike Abee, chief financial officer of the Dove Canyon Co., said Tuesday that the company had not yet seen the suit and he would have no comment.

According to the lawsuit, the dispute stems from an unfulfilled 1987 promise by the company to build a reservoir and other facilities to control the runoff from the 862-acre Dove Canyon development then being planned next to the 4,000-acre wildlife sanctuary owned by the Audubon Society.

Because the development includes a golf course and more than 550 homes, the lawsuit contends, the runoff--most of which comes from storm drains and gutters--contains mud, sediment, silt, litter and various types of garbage ordinarily found on streets.

“It’s a high volume of gushing, murky, high-velocity water,” Pete DeSimone, the sanctuary’s manager, said Tuesday. “The idea was to make sure that the water coming down to the sanctuary was not polluted and is controlled. We tried what we felt was a reasonable amount of negotiations and it looked like it wasn’t going to happen, so our next reasonable recourse is the courts.”

So far, DeSimone said, the contamination has affected about seven miles--the major portion--of Bell Creek, which runs through the sanctuary toward the sea, as well as some of the natural habitat on either side of the creek.

In addition to introducing various pollutants, he said, the runoff keeps the creek bed wet at times when it naturally would be dry. The results, he said, include the growth of such invasive plants as crab grass, as well as a general decline in the diversity of creek life.

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