Monks wage fight with developers

Environmental harm feared from construction near Calif. monastery

March 16, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TRABUCO, CALIF. — From a hillside perch fronting the Ramakrishna Monastery, Wil Devine, a jeans-clad monk, pointed east toward a long, verdant foothill and ridgeline.

"I feel God here," he said. "I feel a peace. And people who have no inclination toward religion feel it here, too."

But peace in this semirural corner of Orange County, at the doorstep of the Cleveland National Forest, is threatened, Devine and the monastery's other monks said. In December, over the unanimous objections of a county-appointed advisory board and despite several lawsuits, the county supervisors approved a 283-home, 600-acre development called Saddleback Meadows on the geologically unstable foothill.

Then, on Jan. 28, over unanimous objections of the same board and amid protests from residents of the area, the supervisors approved two more projects nearby: Saddle Creek and Saddle Crest, 162 homes on 600 acres, which would destroy 492 mature oak trees, a species already largely lost to development in Southern California.

Most of the controversy, though, has focused on Saddleback Meadows because of what critics describe as the threat of landslide and the added pollution runoff that they say will reach California's dirtiest beaches.

Among the chief critics are the monks, followers of a mystical, Hindu-based religion called Vedanta, whose monastery is tucked on 40 acres adjoining Saddleback Meadows, in the shadow of the Saddleback Mountains. The property's gardens, library and domed meditation room have been drawing the devout and the curious since 1942, when a group of British scholars and authors including Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard founded a multidenominational religious college here in the highlands above the citrus groves.

"They were trying to combine Eastern and Western philosophy and religion but were ahead of their time," said Swami Tadatmananda, 70, who leads the monastery. "After seven years, they turned the property over to the Vedanta Society."

Today the monastery houses five monks who act as hosts for as many as a few hundred hikers and worshipers a week. Several years ago, the order donated 300 of its 340 acres to the county for parkland. On part of that land, Devine now walks a nature path, seven or eight of whose old oaks are adorned as shrines to all major religions.

"We've never actually opposed development at Saddleback Meadows," Devine said. "We told the developer that we would support an 80-home project on stable land below the ridge. With this project, there's no way to make the land stable."

Several engineers have sided with the opponents, criticizing the environmental and geological analyses for Saddleback Meadows. Warren Singleton, a geotechnician who has overseen grading projects that have allowed tens of thousands of hillside homes in Orange County, says moving 10 million yards of dirt for this project would be perilous. "I've seen bad ideas," Singleton said, "but this is the most obscene thing I've ever seen. This whole area is a major landslide plain."

But Gerald Nicoll, a geotechnical engineer who helped plan the project, said: "My perspective is that between myself, five other consultants and the county grading department, who've said this land is able to be stabilized, it will work. You've always got someone who says the sky, or hill, is falling."

Pike Oliver, a spokesman for the landowner, said: "The land has its challenges. That's not unusual. A lot of times here in California, when you touch a hill you've got to stabilize it."

But foes are also concerned that runoff will flow into two already very dirty creeks: Aliso Creek, which runs through some of Orange County's densest sprawl, empties at Laguna Beach and is one of California's 10 most polluted waterways; and Trabuco Creek, which flows to Doheny Beach, a surfing spot made famous by the Beach Boys but made infamous by "contaminated water" signs.

The project's spokesmen say developers have created acceptable diversion plans for the runoff. Mike Hazzard, chairman of citizens' watershed monitoring for the California Water Resources Board, disagrees.

First, Hazzard said, the project would violate California law by sending urban runoff into a clean underground aquifer, beneath Saddleback Meadows, that is a potential source of clean-water supply for Orange County. Second, he said, because Aliso Creek is already federally designated as impaired, further "loading" the top of its watershed with pollutants is forbidden under the Clean Water Act.

Richard Goacher, one of four county planning commissioners who recommended approval of the project to the supervisors, called the decision difficult. "Almost no one wants Saddleback Meadows," he said. "But a decision was made by the supervisors decades ago which allowed a 700-unit mobile home development here. The struggle was to find something that would make sense for the landowner and have the fewest impacts possible."

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