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Environmental Coalition Sues to Block Development

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Times Staff Writer

A coalition of environmental groups sued Orange County on Wednesday for approving the Rancho Mission Viejo development plan, which calls for as many as 14,000 homes on the largest swath of undeveloped land in South County.

The lawsuit alleges, among other things, that the county did not adequately address the project’s effect on sensitive habitat.

“The environmental assessment rubber-stamped by the county claims that this colossal development on mostly unspoiled land will have no significant environmental impact, and that’s simply not plausible,” said Dan Silver, executive director of the Endangered Habitats League, one of the plaintiffs.

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Bryan Speegle, director of the county’s Resources and Development Management Department, defended the environmental impact report as “very adequate.”

Last month, the Board of Supervisors approved zoning changes and a development agreement with landowner Rancho Mission Viejo, the first step in the development approval process. The county must still approve more specific plans, such as tract maps.

Rancho Mission Viejo proposes to leave two-thirds of the 23,000-acre property as open space and build homes, commercial and community facilities on the remainder.

But environmentalists charge that the plan will damage the environment by fragmenting fragile habitat with roads and buildings.

The suit seeks to reverse the county approval and stop Rancho Mission Viejo from proceeding until a new plan is drafted.

Meanwhile, Mission Viejo city officials said they were preparing to file their own lawsuit against the plan, alleging it did not adequately address the development’s traffic impact.

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Rancho Mission Viejo officials said Wednesday that they had worked for more than a decade to strike a fair balance between the need for growth and environmental protection.

The company is “disappointed” by the lawsuits, said Dan Kelly, vice president of governmental relations, but “we will be talking with the parties to determine any opportunities for settlement.”

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