Southern Orange County's widest stretch of empty wilderness will give way to a massive residential community of 8,100 homes carved into the hills east of Mission Viejo, county supervisors decided Tuesday.
Providing a lift to home-building activity but a jolt to some environmentalists, supervisors gave the nod to the Ladera planned community, which at an expected 2,400 acres and likely population of 25,000 will be the size of a small city.
Despite a weak housing market and difficulties selling its home sites in recent years, the Santa Margarita Co. plans to launch the project within three years and complete it by 2010. It marks the most aggressive move yet by Orange County's second-largest landowner since it merged in January with apartment builder Western National Group, creating one of the state's largest real estate companies.
"Our homes sales in Rancho Santa Margarita in the first quarter of this year were up 30%," company spokeswoman Diane Gaynor said. Given that success, "we're expecting good things to happen in Ladera."
Gaynor said the company will develop Ladera slowly, building 400 homes at a time.
"We're building for tomorrow's home buyers," she said. "My daughter's 4 years old. She could be a potential Ladera homeowner."
Despite the prospect of a housing behemoth marring wilderness vistas, the project faced little opposition. The plan is being warmly welcomed in business circles, where many see home building as leading the way out of Southern California's lingering recession.
The most vocal opponent has been Pete DeSimone, a local environmentalist who has spent a year fighting the project, the largest in the county since the 1991 approval of a 8,000-unit housing tract in Gypsum Canyon.
"There's no way the county will be able to cover the cost of providing service for all the people moving into this community," DeSimone said. "They're basically deferring any real analysis to down the road until after grading and road construction will occur and won't have much control."
The Santa Margarita Co. still must return to the county with a final detailed map of where houses, retail centers, schools and commercial areas will be placed.
County officials say a comprehensive financial analysis will be done at that time.
"We can always change some things if we need to," Supervisor Marian Bergeson said. "We can cut back where it's needed."
Supervisors placed about 100 conditions on the project, including the dedication of 1,600 acres of open space, and improvements to intersections throughout the Saddleback Valley impacted by the development.
On Tuesday, supervisors also voted to build a six-lane extension of Antonio Parkway through the new community, providing an alternative to Interstate 5.
Bergeson said the Ladera plan addresses criticism raised by residents and leaders of neighboring cities. She also noted that the development will have a maximum of 8,100 homes, not the 9,800 homes the developer requested.
"In the past, many communities were approved before proper transportation infrastructure was established," she said. "By approving the Antonio Parkway extension, we're approving the infrastructure first, then monitoring the growth."
Gaynor said the number of conditions set by the county underscores its close scrutiny of the project.
"We're pleased at the vote," she said. "With 100 mitigation measures and conditions to address, we have a lot of work to do."
The vote drew mixed reaction from residents, merchants and city officials.
Laguna Niguel Councilwoman Patricia C. Bates, who attended Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting, said the county's decision to scrap an extension of Avery Parkway and instead redirect the new traffic from the Ladera development to Crown Valley Parkway, Laguna Niguel's main arterial, caused her city to demand new studies from the county.
She also wanted assurances from the supervisors that Laguna Niguel residents would not be asked to pay for improvements to Crown Valley Parkway to accommodate increased traffic, estimated by the county at 6,000 vehicle trips a day.
"What caught our eye is that [the county] was just shifting the traffic problem," Bates said. "When you bring this new road down and put more traffic on Crown Valley Parkway, you've got a parking lot. You can't mitigate that by putting a couple of right-hand turn lanes in there. It's going to be very costly."
Ronald Greek, a Coto de Caza resident who is chairing the Foothill Cityhood Incorporation Committee, said the county already has a hard time providing police, fire and ambulance services in remote southeast Orange County.
"My concern is, are we just making a repeat of the same problems that are out here where we live?" Greek said. "Are you building a whole new set of problems?
"Let [Santa Margarita Co. President Tony] Moiso build what he wants to build, but we want to make sure this time around that we are provided the reasonable amenities to the quality of life, as basic as fire protection and ambulance services."
But the business community has embraced the new development, seeing it as a source of jobs and commerce.
South Orange County Chambers of Commerce President John Ben predicted that Ladera will boost the local economy, bringing construction and related jobs during the estimated decade-long building.
"This will certainly keep our people working," he said. "There are probably 1,000 counties envious of a development like this."
He also took issue with development opponents who want to halt growth in the area.
"There is no way to stop development. L.A. was developed, then it went into Orange County, and now it's going into south Orange County. If there is a demand, you have to satisfy the need."
The project's immediate eastern neighbor, Mission Viejo, had initial concerns about traffic that were appeased street improvements promised by the developer.
"There's certainly no value to getting agitated," Councilwoman Sherri M. Butterfield said. "The [Ladera] community would be welcome."
Environmentalist DeSimone, who admits to being discouraged about the lack of community response, said, "There are people out there who care . . . but they don't have time.
"They seem to be really overextended with house payments and kids," he added. "But in the meantime, Rome is burning, the community is going down the tubes."
DeSimone, manager of the Audubon Society's Starr Ranch Sanctuary at the foot of the Saddleback Mountains, is a longtime foe of Santa Margarita Co. projects.
In 1991, he led an unsuccessful legal battle against the developer's Las Flores project south of Rancho Santa Margarita.
DeSimone said he and others opposing the project are uncertain whether they'll file a legal challenge to the Ladera approval.
Times staff writer Matt Lait and correspondent Shelby Grad contributed to this report.