“Little boxes, little boxes, and they all look like ticky tack and they all look just the same…”
These lyrics from a popular ‘50s song reflected many people’s view of Orange County as it continues chewing away at open space, replacing it with thousands of residential structures covering 142,723 acres for an estimated population of a little over three million. Fortunately, besides other space gobbled up for government, transportation, commercial, medical and manufacturing purposes, some was left relatively untouched. These lands encompass rolling eastern ridges with natural sage-scrub, woodlands of live oaks and gangly sycamores and grasslands, flowers of hundreds of varieties and rare species of plant and animal life. Much of it is known as “The Reserve.”
In August, the Orange County Supervisors approved the merger of the 1,172-acre Donna O’Neill Land Conservancy into the 32,818-acre Reserve at Rancho Mission Viejo. Eighty-five percent of the Donna O’Neill Land Conservancy is in unincorporated territory of Orange County, of which fifteen percent, about 175 acres, is within San Clemente’s city limits. The county’s action would place the responsibility of the entire open space property in the hands of a seven-person Reserve Board consisting of three Rancho Mission Viejo members, two Orange County members, one member of the Santa Margarita Water District and one member from the Donna O’Neill Land Conservancy. The next step was to occur in September, when the San Clemente City Council would vote for approval.
Additionally, it was proposed that an advisory committee be established “…to provide an additional source of public input on existing and proposed access and educational programs for the lands.” The five advisory board members would represent the cities of San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Mission Viejo, and the Ladera and Talega Master Home Owners Associations.
In September, the San Clemente City Council agenda included a recommended action to approve the merger and it was assumed the Council would agree to move the Donna O’Neill land into the larger parcel. Surprisingly, there was a groundswell of community concern in opposition to the proposal. Two hours were spent at the Council meeting with speakers lining up to voice their concern. Emails, phone calls and newspaper “letters to the editor” suggested that a positive Council vote might not be in the best interest of the citizenry and, too many, the matter had not been addressed properly in public forums. The Council unanimously voted to delay their decision until after a public hearing could be held with all the principles involved.
In November, a workshop was held with close to one hundred local citizens and members of the City Council in attendance. Reserve officials from Rancho Mission Viejo reviewed the details of the proposed merger, but what followed was speaker after speaker expressing concern about one or more issues.
Their many concerns included:
1)Why can’t a San Clemente representative have a voting seat on the 7-member Reserve Board?
2)Why are meetings of The Reserve closed to the public rather than being open?
3)Does the majority of The Reserve Board favor the toll road and will they actively oppose an alignment through the Conservancy?
4)Why is the concentration of the Board on managing the property rather than opening up the property for educational, cultural, scientific, recreational and scenic purposes?
5)Will the Board honor the conservation easement?
6)What has happened to the money Talega residents paid as an assessment over the past several years at around $80,000 annually, and will this funding be allocated to the Conservancy for habitat management?
7)How can the activities and finances of The Reserve be adequately communicated solely by an annual report?
8)Why can’t access to the Conservancy property be open to the public as a wilderness park rather than controlled?
The workshop resulted in the suggestion from the City Council that representatives from these “concerned citizens” develop an alternative proposal for further consideration. Led by several residents who have a long history, both with the Conservancy and The Reserve, including Patricia Holloway, Don Kunze and Paul Carlton, informally known as “The Friends of the Conservancy,” these “concerned citizens” will be asking the Council to reject the merger proposal. A new non-profit organization will be proposed to oversee the Donna O’Neil Land Conservancy. It would expand the membership of its board to include representatives of San Clemente, the Ranch, the Talega HOA and San Clemente Green, as well as representatives of various educational, environmental and cultural groups in the region. All meetings would be open to the general public and held at regularly scheduled times and places to encourage maximum participation. This proposal will be presented at the February, 2009, City Council meeting.
If one studies the Parks & Recreation Element of the San Clemente General Plan the objective states: “Increase the community involvement in the use of recreational spaces encouraging recreational opportunities unique to San Clemente, which contribute to continuing visitation and economic development.”
Having 175 open acres of wild and plant life for such opportunity is rather unique, yet, historically, the public has not had open access to this large open space within its own city limits. One of the policies of the General Plan suggests: “Consider developing a nature center, marine center and/or other such educational/recreational amenity in San Clemente.” What better location for a nature center than in Talega steps away from Conservancy property?
There are also three goals in the general plan for parks & recreation. They suggest: “…preserve natural resources within the City of San Clemente,” …meet the active and passive recreational needs of San Clemente residents,” and “…encourage joint use of park and recreation facilities…” How can such goals be achieved, which would include field excursions and studies by students of all ages and research study in such areas as geology, botany, horticulture, biology; camping, hiking, and star gazing, if the public has such limited input and access to the adjacent property?
Hopefully, the February City Council meeting will be a point at which answers to these questions and many others may be revealed, and alternatives may be decided upon which are favorable to the San Clemente public. b