Lawsuit Alleges Massive Project Will Destroy Orange County's Last Large Undeveloped Open Space

LOS ANGELES (December 8, 2004) -- Conservation groups filed a lawsuit today alleging that Orange County's approval last month of a massive development plan for Rancho Mission Viejo violates California environmental law and will destroy the county's last large, unprotected natural area. The plan allows 14,000 homes and 5 million square feet of commercial space to be built on mostly pristine land, bringing 30,000 more people to south Orange County, dumping traffic on local streets, taxing the ability of cities and the county to provide essential services, destroying and fragmenting wildlife habitat, and polluting local air and water.

"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. "This project will severely degrade the environment and the quality of life for county residents. The Board's approval was entirely contrary to the public's interest and did not meet legal requirements." Mr. Silver added that the concerns of surrounding communities regarding traffic were also ignored.

The other plaintiffs in the case are Laguna Greenbelt, Inc.; NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council); The Sierra Club; and Sea & Sage Audubon, an Orange County chapter of the National Audubon Society. The lawsuit names both Orange County and the project's developer, the Rancho Mission Viejo Company. It seeks to vacate and set aside the County's approval for the project and require that any future approval comply with environmental laws.

California law requires developers to properly analyze the physical and biological damage that large projects will do; to propose ways of mitigating the damage; and to consider lower impact alternatives. "This developer has failed to satisfy either the letter or the spirit of the law, but the County approved the project anyway," said James Birkelund, an NRDC attorney. "Orange County residents deserve an honest assessment of this project and a good faith effort to minimize the environmental harm it will do."

Rancho Mission Viejo's approximately 23,000 acres are the last large, unprotected natural area in Orange County. The project site is one of the most important areas in California for the protection mountain lions and golden eagles, and such rare species as the gnatcatcher, arroyo toad, and coastal cactus wren. In recognition of its importance to endangered wildlife, the land has been the subject of State of California Natural Community Conservation Planning for over a decade. The Board of Supervisors' sudden approval of the massive development plan precluded community efforts to protect these beautiful natural lands for future generations.

"We cannot accept the gross level of habitat fragmentation that would occur in pristine areas like the San Mateo Watershed," said Scott Thomas, conservation chair for Sea and Sage Audubon. "The approved plan does not come close to meeting modern wildlife reserve planning principles."

In addition to granting the Rancho Mission Viejo Company the right to develop the land, the Board of Supervisors needlessly committed to a 30-year development agreement that locks in the scale and density of housing and commercial space, preventing the County from reassessing later phases of the project as circumstances change and more information becomes available.

"The county wrongly signed a development agreement that disregards the public interest by locking in the scale and density of the development forever. This unreasonable agreement violates state law," said Brittany McKee, associate regional representative for the Sierra Club.

"In addition, there may well be extremely toxic waste material at the two defense industry sites slated for new homes and elementary schools," said Mr. Birkelund, "and yet residents would have no way of knowing. It's just common sense to test thoroughly for harmful chemicals at sites like these before building homes and schools on them."

Contamination at other, similar facilities suggests that the Rancho Mission Viejo test sites, one of which is still active, may be polluted with a rocket fuel by-product, NDMA, which is hazardous to human health even at extremely low levels, and with perchlorate, a primary component of rocket fuel, which harms the thyroid and is especially dangerous for infants.

As the case moves forward, plaintiffs will prepare an administrative record to show that the County approved the project without complying with environmental laws.