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For Those Who Love Preserve, Progress Means Do Nothing

Times Staff Writer

If Gen. Gaspar de Portola and Father Junipero Serra miraculously reappeared in San Juan Capistrano, they wouldn’t recognize much of the landscape, except perhaps a parcel several miles east of El Camino Real -- the Donna O’Neill Land Conservancy.

Not much has changed there since the 1700s. Mule deer still forage in the rugged hills for moist grass and tender buds. Mountain lions and bobcats roam through the stands of oak and thickets of coastal sage-scrub. Red-tailed hawks soar high above.

From the ridgelines are panoramic views of the ocean and Santa Ana Mountains. Never mind the radar dome at the TRW Capistrano Test Site to the south or the isolated patches of nonnative artichoke thistle that the caretakers are trying to eliminate.

“It’s an absolute jewel,” said Michael Hazzard, an environmental activist in south Orange County who has tangled with developers, including the creators of the preserve. “The Donna O’Neill is one of the finest and last examples of scenic wild lands in Southern California.”

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The conservancy is 1,200 undeveloped acres set aside by Rancho Mission Viejo, a major south Orange County landholder and developer.

Company executives, the county and the city of San Clemente established the preserve as permanent open space almost 14 years ago as a condition for building the nearby Talega housing project.

It was known as the Rancho Mission Viejo Land Conservancy until 2002, when the grounds were renamed to honor Donna O’Neill, the late wife of Richard O’Neill, the aging patriarch of the Moiso, Avery and O’Neill families that own the 23,000-acre ranch.

As Hazzard says, the conservancy is a prime example of what much of Southern California looked like before rapid urbanization transformed the natural world.

Oak woodlands, coastal sage-scrub and grasslands dominate the preserve. Huge sycamores and more than 6,000 coast live oaks fill the canyons and hillsides. Lemonade berry, toyon, white sage and monkey flower are among the native plants.

The meadows are filled with purple needle grass and perennial wildflowers, such as California buttercup, lupine, shooting star, checker bloom and Mariposa lily.

On the edge of the conservancy is an oak tree estimated to be 500 years old. Legend and lore indicate that this is a “mother oak,” which provided the seed for most the heritage oaks on the ranch and across South County.

Anthony R. Moiso, president and chief executive of the ranch, thought so much of what was to become conservancy land that his family once considered it a potential homestead. Plans were drawn up for a ranch-style dwelling on 130 acres.

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Finally considering the parcel too remote, the Moisos and their four daughters abandoned the idea.

“We kept asking ourselves how would the paperboy find us in the morning? How would we explain to UPS or Fed-Ex where we lived?” Moiso said. “Looking back, that land is better served as a permanent gift to the people of Orange County.”

Yet whether the conservancy will remain relatively untouched by development is unclear. Thousands of homes are planned for nearby ranchland. On one side is a county landfill, and the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which operate a 51-mile network of tollways in Orange County, want to build a new turnpike, the Foothill South, from Oso Parkway east of Mission Viejo to Interstate 5 in or near San Clemente.

Three of the six proposed routes would go through the Donna O’Neill preserve and the northern part of San Onofre State Beach park. The other options course through San Clemente and require the condemnation of homes to obtain right-of-way.

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Although they support the Foothill South tollway, Rancho Mission Viejo representatives say they are concerned about the proposed routes through the conservancy, which has been visited by more than 110,000 people, including scientists and schoolchildren.

Clare Climaco, a TCA spokeswoman, said there had been discussions between corridor officials and the O’Neill family about the highway routes. But everything is on hold, she said, until after TCA board members select a route, which could happen the first half of next year.

The Sierra Club and a coalition of environmental groups, such as the Surfrider Foundation, oppose the Foothill South tollway, especially the potentially destructive routes through the conservancy and San Onofre. If built, they say, the road would be a disgrace to the memory of Donna O’Neill.

“The conservancy is a wonderful asset to the community,” said Brittany McKee, a Sierra Club representative. “Unfortunately, they want to put a toll road through it and develop around it. Because of the Talega development, the conservancy should be saved as intended.”

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