Suits Seek to Block Canyon Projects

Times Staff Writer

Two lawsuits have been filed challenging approvals of development at Orange County's rural edge that would require chopping down nearly 500 trees.

The first suit, filed Wednesday in Superior Court in Santa Ana by the Endangered Habitats League, alleges that county officials did not adequately address habitat concerns for endangered or threatened species, and did not provide crucial wildlife corridors between a central Orange County nature reserve and a proposed South County nature reserve.

The second lawsuit, filed Thursday in the same court by local activist Ray Chandos, alleges conflict of interest by a key county planning department official because his wife's firm was paid to prepare environmental documents.

Chuck Shoemaker is chief of the environmental planning division that reviews impact reports on proposed developments. PCR Services Corp. of Irvine, where his wife, Patricia, works, was paid by developer Rutter Corp. of Irvine to prepare biological studies for an environmental impact report overseen by her husband's division.

Chandos said that based on the environmental report, Chuck Shoemaker prepared a staff report recommending approval of the 162-home Saddle Creek and Saddle Crest projects on 598 acres along Santiago Canyon and Live Oak Canyon roads, and recommended it to the Orange County Planning Commission.

The commission voted 4 to 0 on Dec. 18 to approve the report, over opposition from arborists, environmentalists and nearby residents.

On Jan. 28, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the projects, along with 14 pages of zoning changes to the area, which abuts Cleveland National Forest.

Contacted for comment, Patricia Shoemaker confirmed that she works for PCR but said she is not a biologist. She said she could not comment on the suit.

Planning and Development Services Department spokesman Brian Murphy said neither Chuck Shoemaker nor anyone else in the department had seen the lawsuit, and that no one there could comment on active litigation.

A planning department staffer said Patricia Shoemaker had not been employed by PCR when the reports were written. The first report was completed in December 2000, and the second July 25, 2002. She began working at PCR on Aug. 12, 2002.

Chandos is a longtime Trabuco Canyon resident who has fought for decades to preserve the area's rural character.

"I'm alleging [in the suit] that we didn't get a fair hearing at the Planning Commission, and that the county shirked its duty to independently analyze and review the application prepared on this project, in that the head of environmental planning at the county had a financial interest in the EIR, through his wife."

State codes administered by the Fair Political Practices Commission bar public employees from acting on a matter in which they, a spouse or a family member have a financial interest.

County conflict-of-interest codes prohibit public employees from engaging in "any business, transaction or activity, or [having] a financial activity in conflict with the proper discharge of official duties or [which] would tend to impair independence of judgment or action in the performance of official duties."

Chandos also alleges that top managers at the debt-ridden department, including former Director Tom Mathews and Shoemaker, signed off on major changes in the area's strict zoning because the department needed the permit fees and other revenues that would be generated by such developments.

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