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Hunting Down Deviance in Irvine’s Paradise

I know what you’re thinking: This is going to be just another cheap slam at Irvine. Another outsider bemoaning its sterilized streets and its patrols in search of deviance.

Well, I guess it is, but it’s not my fault. Irvine makes it so easy.

The urge came up this time because of a particular traffic sign I saw there--the usual yellow, diamond-shaped warning sign, except this one on Lake Road near Barranca Parkway has an unusual warning.

It depicts in silhouette a man and woman walking together in enough detail to suggest that they are old. In case you don’t catch that, however, a second sign spells it out. “Senior Citizen Area,” it warns.

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Imagine that, a sign alerting us that there are old folks about. I kept wondering, why do we have to be warned? Does the sign really mean what it implies: “Beware, Codger Crossing”?

I’m told that the sign is there because seniors jaywalk to the shopping center across Lake Road, but others must too, especially kids and cyclists. The old folks are singled out, I suspect, because they are not the norm in Irvine. Apparently people in Irvine must be warned before encountering anything outside the norm. They’re not used to it.

I’m really talking about Woodbridge, the newest section of Irvine and therefore the latest word on what Irvine-ness is supposed to be. In Woodbridge, the norm is so narrowly prescribed and so effectively enforced that you cannot tell one home from another--one street from another. The exteriors of those thousands of homes reveal not one thing about the people who live within.

And it’s going to be like that forever. In other areas, the sameness of tract housing is partially overcome in time by the nesting instinct. People move into a well-kept and well-decorated house but immediately want to change it. It makes it feel “more ours.”

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In Irvine, you can do that too, as long as your taste doesn’t conflict with the collective taste of the homeowner association’s board of directors. If it does, the board wins--every time. It’s in the deed.

“We don’t back down,” said Robert Figeira, executive director of the Woodbridge Village Assn. “That’s why, I think, we’re so successful. In the nine-year history of Woodbridge, we’ve only been to court once.” The violator had “altered his whole front yard,” Figeira said.

The association is granted so much power by the covenants, conditions and restrictions included in all deeds (the “CC&Rs;”), that it can, and does, enforce rules that no city council can. In Woodbridge your garage door cannot be open more than four hours at one time. Do you want to build a little office space with desk in your garage so you can study away from the TV? Forget it.

Other communities totally designed by one developer have similar associations, but they pall compared to this one. Woodbridge’s CC&Rs; are 70 typewritten pages. The rules and regulations are 80. Figeira’s association, working from a $5-million annual budget, has an entire department devoted to enforcing them. Two employees patrol the community at least three days a week, and they try--and usually succeed--in seeing the exterior of every home three to four times a month. An unauthorized azalea hasn’t got a chance.

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“We spend 90% of our time on that 15% who shouldn’t have moved here in the first place,” Figeira said. In a very few extreme cases, “we’ve forced them out. We’re constantly on them and take them before the board, and you can’t take that for very long. You have to address your peers. You don’t have that opportunity in government.”

Figeira says that 85% to 90% of Woodbridge residents appreciate the strict enforcement of regulations. Perhaps that’s true. Perhaps they only tolerate them. Some in Irvine tell me that it’s now chic among Woodbridge residents to belittle the regulations and their enforcement officers.

One friend says that since moving to Irvine, she objects less to the idea of its enforced conformity. It just hasn’t caused her any actual problem so far, she said. Of course, the association has yet to discover that she installed her patio without design approval.

Woodbridge may have exactly what its residents want, which is good. But think of the important things in your life that have become your nostalgia. Could any of them have existed in Woodbridge?

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Mr. Coniglio on Curtis Avenue near where I grew up loved windmills, and he built a half-scale model in his front yard. It was marvelous. He’d let us kids climb up its ladder to the platform on top. But not in Woodbridge.

On my street, a man still made his living delivering block ice. His truck, which he parked on the street, was a wonderful playhouse--all cold and slippery sheet metal inside. He only pretended to chase us away now and then. Not a chance in Woodbridge.

In San Juan Capistrano, a mason has a remarkable collection of old-time gasoline pumps, and he displays them neatly in his yard for all to see. In Costa Mesa, a couple have been building their own Victorian mansion for at least a decade. Still unfinished, it has become a city landmark. Forget it in Woodbridge.

For some reason, these sorts of things are considered a threat to the Woodbridge way of life. If the people there really want it that way, then their community is a great success.

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