Seems the arroyo toad and the California gnatcatcher aren't the only beneficiaries of environmental group support these days. In fact, it appears the tables may actually be turning on the long-contentious relationship between zealous environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the home building community.

After an 18-month battle challenging the approval of a 22,815-acre land management plan for California's southeast Orange County Rancho Mission Viejo project dubbed “The Ranch Plan,” five environmental groups, county officials, and Rancho Mission Viejo representatives signed a landmark agreement late last year. The deal allowed for the development of 14,000 homes to be built over the next 20 to 25 years while permanently protecting 17,023 acres of open space.

The groups, which include The Endangered Habitats League, Laguna Greenbelt, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Sea and Sage Audubon Society, and the Sierra Club, filed suit on Dec. 8, 2004, immediately challenging the County's approval of the original plan.

According to Orange County supervisor Tom Wilson, it has been the willingness of the these groups to negotiate through a variety of complex issues and sticking points that ultimately addresses the long-term interests of everyone involved. “I am pleased to see that the agreement successfully meets both environmental and economic goals,” he says, lauding Rancho Mission Viejo president and CEO Tony Moiso and the conservation groups for resolving all outstanding litigation related to The Ranch Plan.

This collaborative effort comes on the heels of several initiatives from the San Francisco-based non-profit group the Sierra Club involving uncharacteristic support of commercial and residential development. Longstanding opponents of sprawl, the trend toward urban infill and mixed-use redevelopment has turned the once ferocious foe into an approval partner for many projects across the country.

“Developers are getting smarter about this and so are environmentalists,” says Tim Frank, senior policy adviser for the Sierra Club. “We've abandoned the ‘just say no' approach and we've just gotten more sophisticated in the past few years.”

In fact, Frank and other activists have gone so far as to lobby local officials on behalf of developers, testify on their behalf in court, and even take on the NIMBYs—and win. “It's fun to be ‘for' something,” remarks Frank. “We are eating this up.”

In mid-December, the organization even released a “Guide to America's Best New Development Projects,” an endorsement of residential, mixed-use, commercial, and retail developments. “We are looking across the country at urban and suburban and we recognize that there is appropriate development taking place in every arena,” says Frank.

Twelve projects from across the country are recognized in the guide, including the redevelopment of an Atlanta steel mill into a residential community of nearly 5,000 homes and the condo conversion of a defunct Albuquerque high school. Other heralded projects are located in Greensborough, N.C.; Milwaukee, Wisc.; Hopkins, Minn.; Salt Lake City, Utah; Portland, Ore.; and several locations throughout California. To view the report, visit

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.