The developer of two tract home projects that would destroy nearly 500 oaks and sycamores at Orange County's mountainous eastern edge has appealed approvals of his own plans.
Dave Eadie, chief executive of Rutter Development Inc., said the appeal seeks clarification of how much he could be required to pay in road improvement fees. But opponents say the appeal is merely a way to hurry a vote on the project by the county Board of Supervisors.
"Why would a developer appeal his own project?" said Silverado Canyon activist Sherry Meddick. She and others believe that Rutter wants to force supervisors to cast a final vote on the 162 homes before a replacement is picked for the 3rd District seat vacated by Todd Spitzer, who was elected to the state Assembly.
The Saddle Creek and Saddle Crest projects are in the 3rd District; growing opposition by environmentalists and residents is making development of the area's rural canyons a heated campaign issue. A special election to fill the seat is scheduled for Tuesday.
Eadie said that his company has been trying to win approvals for the project for two years and that the timing of the appeal had nothing to do with the election.
"It's not some ruse," he said. "That's totally foolhardy."
Last month, the county Planning Commission approved 14 pages' worth of amendments to area zoning, including changes that would allow the felling of 493 oaks and sycamores and massive grading of steep hillsides. An additional 543 trees could be damaged by the construction work.
The developer has offered to plant 11,000 acorns, seedlings and smaller trees and set aside 300 acres of open space elsewhere. The zoning changes cannot take effect until the supervisors approve them.
Opponents say the developer is trying to force the board to vote before a new 3rd District supervisor takes office because three sitting supervisors might vote for the project. But if a new supervisor for the district opposed it, they might follow his lead.
The appeal is timed "to get this in front of the current board and avoid the uncertainty of what might happen with a new supervisor there," said longtime area resident Ray Chandos.
Rutter appealed the Planning Commission decision Dec. 20. Supervisors are required to respond within 45 days. The last regular board meeting within that time frame is Tuesday.
Eadie said that he wasn't sure when company officials became aware that they had questions that required an appeal but that the timing had nothing to do with the election.
In the appeal, Rutter contends that the approvals would improperly force the company to pay fees to two separate county road funds for the widening of Santiago Canyon Road between Live Oak Canyon Road and Jamboree Road.
County planning staff have responded that Rutter would not be double-billed but that 40% of required road improvement costs would be allocated to one fund and 60% to another.
A coalition of environmental groups has also appealed the approvals. They cite a list of concerns, including experts' testimony that most of the replacement seedlings and trees would not survive. A protest has been scheduled for Saturday at O'Neill Regional Park, near the project area in Trabuco Canyon.