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South County Looks for Ways to Manage Grand-Scale Growth

Times Staff Writer

When Sid Bomhard and her husband, Bill, moved to Mission Viejo in 1967 they found a quiet community of 3,000 people accessible from Los Angeles and northern Orange County by a two-lane road.

Their neighborhood was surrounded by grazing land, and they often encountered deer, coyotes and other wild animals outdoors. The quiet life style compensated for the fact that the nearest supermarkets were in Tustin to the north and San Juan Capistrano to the south.

Things have changed a lot since then. There are 20 times as many people in the planned community now, and the south Orange County area for which Mission Viejo and neighboring Irvine serve as gateways has expanded to encompass about one-sixth of the county’s 2.1 million residents.

The growth is far from finished. Officials in government and in development are predicting changes almost as great as those of the last 20 years between now and the turn of the century.

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If plans on the drawing boards are carried out, the equivalent of four more present-day Mission Viejos will spring up in Irvine and south Orange County in the next 15 years.

Among them will be the 20,000-home Aliso Viejo community adjacent to Mission Viejo, a doubling of Irvine’s present population with the addition of 30,000 homes and expansion of its borders through annexation, two new communities on the present O’Neill Ranch that are planned to include more than 16,000 homes, and construction of 15,000 homes in San Clemente that will more than double the city’s population.

A handful of smaller projects, including the projected 7,700-home completion of Mission Viejo, several thousand new homes in San Juan Capistrano and about 1,500 homes in Laguna Beach, will add another 20,000 dwellings. In addition, thousands of acres are being devoted to commercial and industrial expansion designed to bring tens of thousands of jobs.

When other small-scale housing projects are added, the projected result will be a south county population of about 620,000 at the turn of the century, a 70% increase over today, which will give the area about a quarter of the county’s total population. That means more than half of the county’s total projected growth for the period will take place in south county.

“The fact is that people are beating down the doors to live in south Orange County,” said Irvine City Councilman Dave Baker.

Many residents and city officials agree with projections that foresee south county growth on a grand scale through the remainder of the century. The path to these goals is likely to be bumpy, however. There is a growing number of critics who say they see significant problems with such rapid growth. Laguna Beach City Councilman Dan Kenney, for one, says he observes a “changing political consensus” that favors curbing growth.

“My concern is that we preserve the quality of life we enjoy in Orange County, and particularly in south Orange County,” Kenney said. “If we don’t preserve it, we’re going to be the mirror image of places like Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley that many of us moved away from.”

Two other key factors--the economy and road construction--also could cool the pace of expansion. An economic slowdown like the recession of the 1980-82 could stifle housing and business growth, officials say.

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And three major freeway projects in the county, two of them planned to traverse much of south county, could be stopped or scaled down by a lack of funding, environmental concerns and the opposition of those who live near them.

Some of the opposition to south county’s projected growth has begun to coalesce around the issue of whether to build the freeways.

If the proposed San Joaquin Hills, Foothill and Eastern freeways are stopped or substantially scaled back, development plans on county land--every major project outside of Irvine and San Clemente--"would have to be completely replanned and rethought,” according to county Advance Planning Division Manager Bryan G. Speegle.

Irvine officials also expressed concern about the impact on their city if the freeways aren’t built. On the other hand, San Clemente Community Development Director Harry S. Weinroth said he doubts his city’s plans will be affected even if the roads aren’t built.

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Laguna Beach officials have been among the most vocal critics of growth. With little room for their city to grow or to accommodate the increased flow to its popular beaches brought by new development, they have limited growth inside city borders and spoken against growth plans outside them.

The city has been particularly vocal in its criticism of the proposed San Joaquin Hills Freeway, a 14-mile road from Newport Beach to San Juan Capistrano that would cross some of the most valuable undeveloped real estate in California.

County officials and supporters of the freeway say it is needed to serve current residents, but Laguna Beach officials say the road, which has been planned for up to 17 lanes, is too wide and will have too drastic an effect on the environment.

(The cost for an eight-lane version of the road, construction of which cannot begin for at least two years, was recently estimated at $378 million in current dollars.)

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Kenney, whose term as Laguna Beach mayor ended Tuesday, said the road will not only serve existing needs but also will “open up a tremendous amount of open space to development.” The city would prefer a scaled-down scenic roadway and less development instead, he said. Another vocal critic of growth plans is Irvine City Councilman Larry Agran, who often finds himself on the short end of council votes on development issues.

Agran believes unrestrained growth brings environmental and life-style changes that work against a community’s overall interests. Projects such as new freeways only ratify plans for excessive growth while encouraging more of it, he said.

County Supervisors Criticized

Agran places most of the blame for what he considers excessive growth on the pro-growth policies of the Board of Supervisors, who control the unincorporated communities that dominate the area and have given at least preliminary approval to the major new developments in them.

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“You get this vicious circle where they say yes to each and every proposal, yes to go further and faster than was ever anticipated . . . then the supervisors begin to lead a hysterical charge for more freeways, more taxes to solve the problems they’ve created.

“The real missing ingredient here is political will, the will to say no to developers on a regular basis,” Agran said.

Agran was the only Irvine council member to vote last September against the city’s endorsement of a fee program to pay for the new freeways, although, he says, he supports construction of a scaled-down San Joaquin Hills corridor. The fee would be levied on developers for each new home or square foot of office space they build.

In opposing the measure, he told council members that “new freeways will actually induce a scale of development which can only aggravate traffic congestion, air and noise pollution, and irrevocably damage the quality of life in Orange County.”

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In a recent interview, he said that calling the tax (which, as passed by the county Planning Commission, would add $1,185 to the cost of each dwelling unit) a fee on developers is “a laughable misnomer.”

“It’s a tax on consumers,” he said. “If it isn’t, then why is every major developer in south county lining up to support it?”

Citywide Initiative Begun

Agran currently is sponsoring a citywide initiative that, if passed, would mandate voter approval for any new roadway that requires a new tax.

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He said he would like to see Irvine’s population top off at about 165,000, instead of at the projected 215,000, and that current south county development plans should be cut back 50%.

Several longtime south county residents, including the Bomhards, were not so sharply critical of development plans.

Mal and Eleanor Troutman, retirees who maintain homes in Trabuco Canyon and in Leisure World in Laguna Hills, remember when local growth controversies revolved around such developments as the proposed installation of Anaheim’s first stop sign. They, too, have mixed feelings about what is planned to come.

“I’m kind of neutral on it, but I know you can’t stop it,” Mal Troutman said. “I guess you’d always like to have things the way they were, but . . . .” He left the sentence unfinished.

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Hideaway a Buffer

For the Troutmans, the canyon hideaway is their buffer against growth. Although they usually split their time between the two homes, Eleanor Troutman said the traffic and crowding near Leisure World is leading them to spend more time in the canyon.

Sitting in the cool building that she and her husband use as a library and hobby workshop, located across the road from the home, she said, “Now we’ve grown so attached to this place we hate to even go to Leisure World.”

Despite the criticisms of those opposed to growth, county planner Speegle strongly defends the county’s approach to developing the unincorporated southern areas, saying it reflects restraint combined with a recognition of future needs.

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The major component of growth in Orange County in the next 20 years will be births, not the arrival of newcomers, he said, adding, “Unless there’s some accommodation to our children, we’ll have to start exporting folks.”

(Chief County Demographer Bill Gayk confirmed that what he called “natural increase"-- the number of births minus deaths--will account for most of the county’s growth through the year 2010. But, Gayk said, the projected development surge in south Orange County means that most growth in that area will “definitely” result from newcomers’ arrivals.)

Goal Is ‘Balanced Communities’

The central goal of county planning in the unincorporated southern areas is the creation, Speegle said, of “balanced communities,” where new employment opportunities will match the addition of workers to the population.

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And Speegle pointed to lower densities in new developments as a sign that growth is restrained. The county has routinely asked developers to turn over 40% to 50% of their land for open spaces such as parks, he said. Although the lots left for construction are often smaller than in the past, the net density is lower when the open space is factored in, he said.

The new communities should, by creating jobs where people live, limit freeway traffic and smog, Speegle said. Even with such a plan, he said, travel times within the county may as much as double in the next 15 years, creating additional incentives for people to live near their jobs.

The increase in travel times already has become apparent to Bill Bomhard. Bomhard, 67, recently retired from a job in Irvine that took him on the 405 Freeway daily.

“It used to take 12 to 14 minutes to get there,” he said, “but the past few years it had become a miserable drive. I don’t miss it one bit.”

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Even though Sid Bomhard makes her living as a real estate agent, she and her husband say their feelings about growth are mixed.

“The congestion we don’t need,” she said, but she added that she and her husband knew of their community’s growth plans when they arrived.

“I imagine we can go along with it pretty well,” she said. Bill Bomhard added that Mission Viejo’s planned growth has been handled properly, and both agree that it has progressed with few surprises.

But the Bomhards agree they’re not planning to be driven out by new development. With a 1,937-square-foot home that cost $29,000 new, Sid Bomhard says simply: “Where could we do better?”

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