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Transit Agency Buys Disputed Property at Cook’s Corner

Times Staff Writer

A piece of property in rural Orange County that was to include a strip mall and a gas station instead will be preserved as natural habitat after the county toll road operator bought it Tuesday.

The Transportation Corridor Agencies bought the 23-acre parcel at the landmark Cook’s Corner, an area at Live Oak Canyon and El Toro roads.

The TCA says it will restore what is mostly pastureland to its natural state. By law, developers are required to lessen their projects’ impact on the environment by creating habitat elsewhere. The TCA plans to bank the restored habitat at Cook’s Corner and use it as credit when it builds future projects, such as widening or extending roads.

The purchase of what is known as the Live Oak Plaza property ends an eight-year battle between the landowners and residents who have fought the steady march of the suburbs into their rural canyons.

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A 42,000-square-foot strip mall with a gas station was planned for a portion of the property that sits across the road from the Cook’s Corner tavern, a longtime biker hangout.

About a third of the property was slated for open space and a third for residential development. The county approved the zoning change in 1997, but residents filed suit challenging the decision.

The courts sided with the landowner and the county. In 2002, the county approved plans for the strip mall. But the owners never submitted detailed construction plans, and project opponents vowed to continue their challenge.

“I was a little naive when we started the process,” said Michael Buckley, a Lake Forest real estate investor who bought the parcel in 1987 with his partners. “I did not anticipate at all that it would be this difficult. The opposition was relentless.”

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Late last year, TCA offered $1.9 million for the land. Escrow closed Tuesday.

“I felt we had a real nice plan,” Buckley said, but pursuing it further “was going to be another exercise in patience.”

Canyon residents say their patience is being tried by the continuous flow of new homes, business and traffic into their once-bucolic surroundings near the Cleveland National Forest.

Construction is set to start this year on the 266-home Saddleback Meadows project just down the road from Cook’s Corner. An additional 162 homes, the Saddle Creek and Saddle Crest projects, have been proposed for 593 acres north of the corner.

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Live Oak Plaza “is a very small victory,” said Mike Boeck of Silverado Canyon, north of the Saddle Creek and Saddle Crest projects. “But I’m real happy.”


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