Orange County's canyon lands: a rural oasis amid suburban sprawl

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Away from the freeways, shopping malls and tract homes, there is a slice of Orange County that looks nothing like the suburban sprawl many associate with it  --   thousands of acres of open space known as “the canyons.”

Orange County is considered one of the most densely populated area in the country, and as the county continues to swell with office complexes and subdivisions, developers are increasingly eyeing the scenic stretch of hills and valleys.

The area sits along the eastern edge of Orange County, north of Rancho Santa Margarita and includes Trabuco, Silverado and Modjeska canyons. It borders the Cleveland National Forest and there are oak tree canopies along many of the canyon roads.

Although the county's zoning plans currently maintain the rural character of the canyons, the area is still under threat of development.

A residential project called Saddle Crest in Trabuco Canyon was recently rejected by a judge after the Orange County Board of Supervisors approved it. The developer, Rutter Santiago, is appealing the judge's decision.

Before approving the proposal, the supervisors voted to change the zoning rules and amended the main planning document, the Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan. The ruling by the judge tossed out those changes. The plan, which guides planning in the 6,500 acre Trabuco Canyon area, was approved in 1991 to preserve its rural character. (Development in the Silverado-Modjeska canyon areas is covered under a plan adopted in 1977.) 

The canyon area includes park and open space areas for campers, horses, hikers and mountain bikers. Motorcycle riders enjoy touring through the gently winding roads.

With hills, trees and few traffic signals, it's an area many turn to for a Sunday drive. Mountain and road bicyclists frequently ride on and off road too, pedaling by views of sycamore, oak and other trees, along with cactus flowers which bloom in the spring.

And the area is home to some rare plants and animals.

But you won’t see the urban sprawl or tract developments that spread over much of Orange County here.  Many people own homes on an acre or two, like Gloria Sefton.

As we walk in her backyard of native oak trees, it's a different "tree" of sorts that catches our attention.

"Here we've got some woodpeckers on this telephone pole," Sefton said, pointing skyward at the pole on her property.  "That telephone pole — it's amazing. It's absolutely studded with acorns and it provides a habitat for woodpeckers." 

Sefton is a lawyer and has lived in the Trabuco Canyon home she shares with her husband for 25 years. 

She is also the co-founder of the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy, which seeks to limit or restrict development in the rural area and set aside lands for permanent conservation. 

"Many of the efforts that I've been involved with over the years have to do with preserving the integrity of this document called the Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan, so that we can continue to have an area that is designated as a special area of Orange County," Sefton said. 

The Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan

The Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan defines the types of homes that can be built in the canyon (rural in nature) and requires homeowners to set aside a certain amount of their property as natural open space. But the plan is under attack by what Sefton calls "backroom deals."

She said the 65 home Saddle Crest project wasn't just about the number of homes. 

"It was what was going to have to happen to put that number of homes on that piece of property," explained Sefton. "In that case 151 oak trees were going to have to be removed and grading was going to have to take place that was massively out of sync with what the specific plan says that they are able to do." 

Sefton also said if the developer's appeal is successful, it could open the door for more development throughout Orange County's rural canyons. 

"If that would be allowed for this one developer then the next developer comes along and you've got the same issue occurring again and again and again," said Sefton. "And, before you know it, this area is no longer a special area." 

But Sefton said the efforts of she and other people in the "canyon clan" is not simply a NIMBY ("not in my backyard") response to development.  

"In fact the opposition to these later development proposals that have come through have been from people from all over Orange County and even beyond Orange County," Sefton pointed out, referring to organizations outside the canyon community that have challenged recent projects. 

She says there are also safety reasons for limiting home development on hillsides in the canyons.  Properties on steep slopes create landslide hazards and the grading and removal of trees and other vegetation on canyon slopes can increase those hazards. These canyons, like other canyon areas in Southern California, have been prone to fires, flooding and mudslides.

Fighting developers and county supervisors

At a recent Voice of OC editorial board meeting, Sefton asked why residents have to continue fighting homebuilding projects that violate the county's planning rules. She said there was another proposal in 2002, again by developer Rutter Santiago, that sought to build 162 homes - in direct violation of the county's planning document, the Foothill-Trabuco Specific Plan.

But Sefton said recently elected 3rd District Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer has met with canyon residents and was instrumental in guiding supervisors when they decided not to appeal the judge's ruling in the Saddle Crest development case. 

“I’m absolutely committed to protecting the rural character of the Canyons,” Spitzer said in a news release. “This isn’t just about Saddle Crest. This is about the entire Specific Plan area.” 

The Saddle Crest project was approved by supervisors in October 2012, before Spitzer was elected to represent the 3rd District, which includes the canyon communities.

Zoning is a temporary thing, it's a political thing

But zoning plans are just that, they're plans, said Bob Johnson, who was the planning director for Riverside County from 2003 to 2006. 

"The longer that a plan is in place, the greater the probability it's going to be modified," he said. "Attitudes change, demand changes, the growth pressures change and areas that were pretty far out and rural at one time, as urban development expands, are now closer and closer to the pressures of that development."

Johnson said master plans, especially plans adopted 10 or  20 years ago, are frequently reviewed and updated. 

"There is really only a couple of ways in which to ensure the open space that people want to protect is set aside from development," said Johnson, now retired and living in Irvine. "One is to buy it. Zoning is a good tool on an interim basis but zoning is a temporary thing, it's a political thing. But if you buy the property, it's permanent."

Johnson was Temecula's City Manager during a controversial battle over a proposed quarry in a rural area. In that case, Johnson says a Native American tribe bought the property from the developer in order preserve the open space.

He said a second conservation mechanism is to have a community referendum vote on an open space plan. Johnson said once approved, changes require another public vote.
He said a good master plan may work at a point in time, but new property owners may view those plans differently if they weren't part of the original planning process.

"They may want to develop it, they may want to get a return on their investment," said Johnson. "You're going to have that fight between the people that have been there over a period of time with expectations and the new people coming in."   

If there are conflicts over planning documents adopted decades ago, it's not uncommon to review and update the plan, said Johnson. 

"But what is difficult is satisfying the different constituents," Johnson said. "But again, just because it's a master plan doesn't mean it's there forever." 

It's estimated that fewer than 15 new homes have been built in the Trabuco Canyon area since the county adopted the planning rules in 1991. 

Open space 'crucial' near urban areas

"Folks that like to come out here and either mountain bike ride or they keep horses here or they want to do a road bike ride through Santiago Canyon," said Gloria Sefton. "They're interested in this natural experience and this experience where they can escape the typical suburban development area."   

She said a 10-12 mile stretch of road without traffic signals is one of those experiences. The 4,000 acre O'Neill Regional Park in Trabuco Canyon, provides camping and recreation.  And, driving through the canyon is one entry point to access the Cleveland National Forest. 

UC Irvine Professor Oladele Ogunseitan, heads UCI’s public health program. 

“I think given what we know about human nature, it’s really crucial to have open space available," said Ogunseitan.

While ideas of “getting away” may differ, he said studies show people who live and work in high density, urban areas, seek out open spaces.

“If you’re essentially trapped in a wall-to-wall coverage of buildings and roads, that adds to the mental stress that people feel," said Ogunseitan.  

He said while the "tension" over balancing  development and open space only increases with population, it’s especially important to set aside “escape valves” in urban areas.

"In the spaces where we still have the opportunity to preserve within high pockets of development, we need to make sure that there are certain opportunities for people to escape,” Ogunseitan said.

But he said even if people don’t get out to those open space areas, just knowing the space is there is "psychologically pleasing."

Back in Orange County's canyon communities, more of that open space is being set aside for conservation.  Some of the land is reserved only for wildlife and there is no public access. 

But recently, the Black Star Canyon Road, between Silverado Canyon Road and the Cleveland National Forest, was opened to hikers, bicyclists and horses.

While recent home development proposals may seem modest to some, people living in the canyon communities, like Gloria Sefton in Trabuco Canyon, feel there’s a huge value in keeping the area just as it is.

But that doesn't come without a fight in Orange County - even with a county plan in place since 1991 that guides what types of development is allowed.

"Without that plan it really would become more of the same, so you'd see encroaching development, much like Rancho Santa Margarita at the one end and like the City of Orange at the other, beginning to make this area look like the rest of Orange County." 

Do you think it's crucial to have open space available? Why or why not? Let us know in comments or on Facebook

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