A series of villages with a total of 14,000 homes would extend from San Juan Capistrano to the Cleveland National Forest under a plan presented Thursday by Rancho Mission Viejo for the last swath of privately owned open space in Orange County.
The villages, to be built over the next 30 years, would have single-family homes, townhouses, apartments, senior housing, retail and office space, according to the company's proposal. It also calls for setting aside 14,000 acres as open space, including a 10,000-acre parcel that the O'Neill family, which has owned the sprawling ranch since 1882, would preserve for farming and cattle ranching permanently. There would be a 1,200-acre public park in the flood plain along Ortega Highway, as well as several large parcels of preserve land.
Because the property--25,000 acres in all--is habitat for several rare plant and animal species, environmentalists have expressed concern about the effects of development.
Dan Kelly, the company's vice president for government relations, said Thursday, "This plan doesn't need to be feared. It was our goal to develop a plan that was fair and doesn't burden our neighbors."
State and county housing forecasts project demand for nearly 21,000 homes in that area to accommodate population growth. Kelly said the proposal demonstrates that the company is sincere about protecting the environment and preserving a viable ranching community.
Environmentalists were not impressed.
"What they have done is produce a development plan absent scientific analysis," said Dan Silver, coordinator of the Endangered Habitats League, a preservation group based in Los Angeles.
The company has said it will develop the land under federal programs intended to include environmentalists, community members and government agencies in the planning.
Environmentalists criticized the company for presenting a draft proposal before biological studies have been released to the public.
"They have advanced one idea for a development in front of everything else," Silver said. "We were supposed to look at different alternatives and get everything together and weigh one against the other. But they are trying to preempt that."
Company officials said the plans are in a very early stage and are likely to change as they hear from the community.
Thursday's presentation was to a small group of officials from San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano and Mission Viejo, some of whom expressed optimism.
"I think they have a thoughtful plan," said Jim Dahl, a San Clemente City Council member. "I like that the family will keep a lot of it still in active ranching."
Other officials were more skeptical.
Stephanie Dorey, a San Clemente City Council member who was not invited to the meeting, said the company should have unveiled its proposal in a public forum. She said she would like to see a preservation group buy a large part of the property to reduce the scale of development.
The proposal did not specify where the villages would be but did say what would be preserved as open space. The 10,000 acres of ranchland would be along the eastern border of the property, linking the Cleveland National Forest, Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park and Camp Pendleton. A 1,200-acre park would border Ortega Highway for five miles and would feature trails, picnic grounds and a 30-acre sports complex.
Other parcels of open space would be along Chiquita Canyon, home to a large population of California gnatcatchers, endangered songbirds.
Environmentalists expressed alarm to hear that the company would consider building anything in that area.
"They are talking about putting development in the middle of this incredibly historic and ecologically important landscape," Silver said.
Richard Broming, vice president for planning and entitlement for the company, said the plans are very preliminary and that there will be give-and-take with environmentalists on where exactly the villages should be built.
"We are taking a sensitive approach," he said. "We know that if we don't take this opportunity to do this now, someone else will come in and build a lot more houses on this land later on."
Rancho Mission Viejo is headed by Richard O'Neill, his nephew Anthony Moiso and other relatives.
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Rancho Mission Viejo Co. is proposing 14,000 homes on 25,000 acres of environmen-tally sensitive land in South Orange County. The plan calls for preserving 14,000 acres as open space. Source: Rancho Mission Viejo Co.