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Mavericks Fight for South County Dream

<i> Times Urban Affairs Writer </i>

Tom Rogers gazed skyward from his one-acre ranchette above the San Diego Freeway in San Juan Capistrano, eyeing a soaring red-tailed hawk that he said is “always trying to pick off my chickens.”

On the other side of the freeway, atop a flat ridge, engineers are surveying for the new San Joaquin Hills highway. A ramp for its interchange with the San Diego Freeway is to be built almost at the front doorstep of Rogers’ friend and neighbor, Russ Burkett.

Rogers, 62, has raised five children here. Burkett, 45, has raised three. Attracted to the area by the large lots and the rural atmosphere, they have attained what Burkett calls “the Orange County dream.”

Not Opposed to Growth

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Now, Rogers and Burkett see that dream in danger. With development spreading through south Orange County at an unprecedented rate, they see the specter of urban sprawl on the ridge line. They are not, however, prepared to accept that without a fight. That is why they have become chief architects of an effort to get a countywide slow-growth initiative on the ballot in June, 1988.

These two men, who are no strangers to politics, also are mavericks. Rogers is a former county Republican Party chairman, although he can count some liberal Democrats among his friends. Burkett is a longtime GOP activist. Neither sees any inconsistency between their conservative, free-enterprise Republican ideals and their current anti-developer political stance.

“I don’t see the north county becoming the urban part and the south county staying rural or agricultural,” said Rogers, whose den is heated by a pot-bellied stove. “I think we’ll have just as much urban development here (in the south county) as we have in the north county, maybe even more so. I’m not opposed to that, as long as it doesn’t create traffic problems and destroy the environment.”

Said Burkett: “It wouldn’t bother me to see everything stopped here in the county for a while. But you have to balance your personal attitude with a public perspective. It’s wishful thinking to think you can stop everything and return it to yesteryear. It just isn’t going to happen.”

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The proponents say their initiative is intended to force developers to pay for the roads needed to serve their developments. It would condition future building on the ability of streets and intersections to handle the added traffic and would require specific levels of service from public-safety agencies.

Billion-Dollar Cost

Opponents say the initiative would end up costing taxpayers more than a billion dollars for all of the roads, sewers, flood channels, parks and other public services required and would hurt the local economy and reduce the number of construction industry jobs by reducing the rate of new building.

To qualify the measure for the June ballot, 65,763 signatures are needed from voters registered in unincorporated areas of the county by Feb. 9. Dozens of volunteers have been working toward that goal in recent weeks.

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There also are efforts under way in the county’s 26 cities to qualify the measure for municipal ballots there. But campaigns are well organized in only about 15 of the cities.

Organized opposition to the proposed initiative is only beginning to take shape. In the next few weeks, the business community is expected to work out plans for a $500,000 to $1-million campaign against it. But Rogers and Burkett said they aren’t worried one bit.

It was Rogers and Burkett who led the successful 1984 campaign against the Orange County political and business establishment to defeat a countywide sales tax increase to finance highways. The measure was defeated, Rogers said, because voters knew it would have financed roads to serve new development rather than relieve traffic congestion for current residents.

Now this duo--the Siskel and Ebert of development politics--circling like a pair of red-tailed hawks, patiently wait to pick off the establishment again.

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Just how they intend to do that and who the individual targets might be are still open to question, but there are political observers who believe that Rogers and Burkett have the replacement of hostile members of the Board of Supervisors on their private agendas.

“That’s a good assumption,” said Rogers.

“Obviously the initiative is directed at the board. . . . There is an opportunity in the near future to put three or four new people on there,” said Burkett, referring to Gaddi H. Vasquez, who is up for election next year; the anticipated retirement soon of Thomas F. Riley, and possible bids by Harriett M. Wieder and Roger R. Stanton for higher office.

No Interest in Office

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Neither Rogers nor Burkett, however, was willing to talk about who might be on their lists of favored replacements, but both men said they have no interest in holding public office themselves.

And both strongly denied that their motive in the slow-growth effort is revenge for the San Joaquin Hills highway project’s infringement on their peace and quiet.

“Hell, the San Diego Freeway is right there,” said Rogers, pointing to a spot below his pasture. “You can’t get much closer to a freeway than this, so another on-ramp isn’t going to mean much of a difference to me.”

But Burkett, on the other hand, hasn’t given up trying to stop the San Joaquin Hills project.

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“I don’t think all of the decisions have been made yet,” he said, referring to possible efforts by the city of San Juan Capistrano to block the route.

Burkett is quick to point out that his proposed ballot measure--called the Sensible Growth and Traffic Control Initiative--would not affect freeways or a developer’s plan to erect four-story office buildings, fronting on the San Diego Freeway, behind the homes of the two men. The development rights already have been granted, and the landowner has agreed to make the necessary traffic improvements, he said.

However, Burkett said he expects the traffic on his street to worsen. “My wife’s bugging me to move. She says there’s (already) too many people over here and that she can’t get out of her driveway. She talks about southern Utah. Southern Utah doesn’t have any people.”

Rogers, the son of a service station owner, developed his father’s property into two shopping centers, on Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach and on Harbor Boulevard in Costa Mesa. Today Rogers, who helped run the successful campaigns of former state Sen. John G. Schmitz (R-Corona del Mar), owns a 600-acre Plumas County cattle ranch that is managed by one of his sons.

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In days gone by, Rogers recalled, the business community and the Republican Party spoke with one voice on all issues. Now the growth battle has opened wounds, and Rogers said this has damaged his friendships with such people as former Supervisor Bruce Nestande and developer Gus Owen.

Owen could not be reached for comment, but Nestande, a member of the state Transportation Commission who works for developer George Argyros, said he still considers Rogers a friend and talks to him frequently.

“We disagree on this issue because I think he’s wrong in his approach,” said Nestande, who contends that the small developers, contractors and regular workers will be the ones hurt by the restrictions of the sweeping initiative. “It’s the little guy who hangs dry wall who is going to get it in the neck.”

Lost to Riley

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The crusty, gray-haired Rogers ran against Supervisor Riley in 1978 but lost. The issue then was not Riley’s support for the San Joaquin Hills project, but rather Rogers’ opposition to the extension of an existing road through the same hills and Riley’s campaign contributions from development firms or their employees.

Both Burkett, a self-employed investment adviser and former investor guidebook writer, and Rogers see the growth issue as a struggle between corporate and individual rights.

“You certainly have corporate rights, and you have personal rights,” Rogers said. “And the individual citizen--he has his rights too, just as the developer has rights. But one should not overwhelm the other.

“And I might say that, as a developer, we never asked for a variance or for any exception to an existing planning regulation or anything else.”

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Said Burkett: “I’m a capitalist. And I know business is supposed to go out and make the highest profit it can. That’s what businessmen are supposed to do. . . . But they must face the consequences of poor planning and poor decision-making, and that’s what’s happened here.

‘People Have to Suffer’

“We came along at the right time. And my feeling has been that you can’t do something positive until you let the negative occur first. People have to suffer. People don’t become activists until they are suffering some local, immediate threat to their environment or their neighborhood.”

Rogers and Burkett are often faulted for not getting their facts straight.

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For example, they once claimed incorrectly that a key south county intersection was not included in a county road improvement program. Burkett explained later that the intersection was not to be upgraded significantly, like some others in the program.

Nestande is one of those who say Rogers plays “fast and loose” with facts, but he added that he doesn’t believe Rogers does so deliberately.

Nestande said that in 1984, he and Rogers agreed to support a half-cent sales tax proposal instead of the 1-cent ballot measure that was defeated, even though Rogers now says it was the highway projects involved and not just the amount of tax that drew his opposition.

“He’s not deceitful,” Nestande said. “He doesn’t lie. He’s just not a technician or a detail man. And neither am I.”

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Although there is not yet any organized opposition to the slow-growth initiative, individual businessmen--especially within the building industry--have been criticizing it at local forums throughout the county for some time.

Rogers and Burkett accused them of rhetoric that is based on an emotional appeal to fears that jobs will be lost, even though the industry has not yet been able to substantiate any threat to jobs.

In fact, the two men argued, the initiative would spread growth over a longer period, making jobs last longer.

They said the initiative does little more than accomplish what the supervisors already have approved in the so-called foothill area, where a massive road construction program has been negotiated with developers as a condition of further development.

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Nestande disagrees.

“The George Argyroses and (Irvine Co. owner) Don Brens of the world are going to come out OK no matter what,” Nestande said. “But you can’t tell me there isn’t going to be some sort of slowdown that will adversely affect the little guy.”

Residents Not Consulted

Setting the issue of jobs aside, there is an aspect of growth in south Orange County that looms large in Rogers’ mind. It has to do with how the San Joaquin Hills project was handled, and Rogers feels it right down to the soles of his cowboy boots.

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The bottom line, said Rogers, is that officials never seriously consulted local residents before deciding on the project.

“I went to all of the route hearings on the San Joaquin corridor,” Rogers said. “I don’t recall attending one meeting where any residents were in favor of the project. When we asked them to move the project a little to the north, the answer was, ‘Gee, we could do that, but then we’d have to redesign the project, and we don’t want to.’ ”

Reflecting on his vision of the future, Rogers said: “There are enough human resources here to make the county an ideal place to live, with a balanced community that has all the environments, including agriculture . . . and a reasonable opportunity for every person in each economic strata to find a place to live--and live well.”

Said Burkett: “I want people who move here to get value for the money that they invest in the county. And that means that their transportation system will not only work the day they move in, but will work 10 years from now.”

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SLOW-GROWTH MEASURE’S PROVISIONS

The proposed countywide slow-growth measure known as the Citizens Sensible Growth and Traffic Control initiative would:

Require that new arterial highways generally be sufficient to accommodate traffic moving at an average of no less than 22 m.p.h. during rush hours.

Require that average traffic delays at new intersections generally not exceed 40 seconds.

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Require that additional congestion generated by new development on or at existing roads or intersections be offset by traffic improvements paid for by developers within three years of construction, through establishment of a traffic improvement trust fund.

Set minimum response times for police, fire and paramedics of five minutes in emergencies, 10 minutes in non-emergencies.

Require additional park land dedications by developers.

Set a minimum flood control standard requiring new development to withstand the kind of heavy flooding that occurs on an average of once every 100 years.

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