In a victory for environmentalists, a state appellate court Wednesday blocked construction of 162 homes in the oak-dotted foothills of eastern Orange County.
The Saddle Creek and Saddle Crest projects near Cook's Corner would have required chopping down nearly 500 trees to bring development to the county's rural edge.
The unanimous decision by the three-judge panel said Rutter Development Co. of Irvine and the county had relied on a poorly written environmental impact report and failed to properly assess the amount of traffic that the projects would generate.
The appellate court sent the case back to Superior Court with an order that the judge must tell county supervisors to rescind their approval of the housing projects.
"This is semantic sleight of hand," wrote Appellate Justice William W. Bedsworth of the report. Among other things, he took issue with the county's method for estimating the numbers of cars that would be coming in and out of Trabuco Canyon.
In the ruling, Bedsworth said the county shouldn't have accepted the builders' method for measuring traffic, which the opinion noted was a much softer test than what the county's general plan requires.
He said amendments that eased certain requirements for the developer -- tree preservation, grading, setting aside open space -- amounted to an "unacceptable freebie."
The appeal had been sought by Endangered Habitats League Inc., the environmental group that sued the county in 2003 to block the project. The group, which has battled the plans for six years, argued -- unsuccessfully at the Superior Court level -- that the project along Live Oak Canyon and Santiago Canyon roads would bring too much traffic, force the removal of too many oaks and violate zoning laws.
"This ruling is good for the Trabuco Canyon community and for natural resources," said Dan Silver, the league's executive director. Rutter's attorney, William D. Ross, said his client was reviewing the court's opinion and might ask the state Supreme Court to hear the case.
"Several of the areas set forth in the opinion appear to be different than long-standing standards under the California Environmental Quality Act," Ross said.
Ray Chandos with the Rural Canyons Conservation Fund, another appellant, said canyon environmentalists had fought the county and developers for years.
"This is good news," Chandos said. "This reverses the approval and puts the project back to square one."
The case will be sent back to Superior Court Judge Ronald L. Bauer, who had rejected the environmentalists' arguments.
The appeals court ruling came as a pleasant surprise to other environmental activists.
"We couldn't be more elated," said Eric Noble of the Sierra Club's Orange Hills Task Force. "Obviously we have courts that are realizing the standard operating procedure of describing all impacts as 'not significant' is not going to fly anymore."
The ruling could have significant implications for the Irvine Co.'s proposal to build about 4,000 houses along a five-mile stretch of Santiago Canyon Road in unincorporated east Orange, Noble said.
"The Irvine Co. on the east Orange project has scrupulously avoided the issue of increasing traffic and this brings that front and center," he said.
The Saddle Creek and Saddle Crest developments "are pimples in comparison to east Orange with regard to traffic," Noble said.
The east Orange proposal is under review by the Orange Planning Commission.