Tracy Richmond was reading "The Little House" to his 8-year-old daughter one recent evening when it hit him.
The 1942 classic by Virginia Lee Burton tells the story of a country cottage that gets swallowed up by urban construction, until the house rejects the rush of city life and finds happiness again in the country.
"All of a sudden I realized, it's really the story of North County," said Richmond, a Solana Beach attorney who has lived in the region all his life.
Indeed it is.
As more North County flower fields and pastoral views succumb to the march of progress, more and more longtime residents are leaving the county. And movers, real estate agents and community leaders all predict that the exodus from North County will probably accelerate during the 1990s.
They leave because the clean air and open-country feel, the slower-paced simpler life for which they moved to North County, have all but disappeared. Crowded urbanism has taken their place. Cookie-cutter housing developments, smog, crime and, above all, traffic have tarnished the vision.
"We just saw this dream eroding like the bluffs of Solana Beach," said Gail Paparian.
A decade ago, Paparian and her husband, Bill, moved to Solana Beach to escape the woes of daily living and commuting in Los Angeles. The couple helped found the city's successful incorporation effort. For a while, they seemed almost synonymous with Solana Beach. They shocked everyone when they moved last summer to Charleston, S. C.
"We were disheartened, disenfranchised, disgusted, disenchanted--all the 'dis' words," said Paparian, 46, a free-lance writer and retired television director. "We got into a situation where we were facing the same kinds of things (as in Los Angeles), like gridlock--unbelievable traffic."
The Paparians are part of a trend that Todd McKittrick, North County regional sales manager for United Van Lines, started noticing about three years ago. Working for one of the largest moving companies in the county, McKittrick began to hear a common chorus of complaints among those leaving North County.
"They'd say, 'Come over and look out this window. Eighteen years ago, you could look out this window and see nothing but sagebrush.' And you'd look out the window and see nothing but houses," McKittrick said.
Joe Franich, a real estate agent with Century 21 Bernet in Escondido, has heard the same story.
"People will make comments like, 'I originally moved here for the open spaces, and they're disappearing,' " he said. "There's just too many people, the prices are too high, and they feel their money can get better value elsewhere."
"Elsewhere" tends to be Northern California, Arizona, Oregon and Washington, the destinations of choice, according to moving companies. Others leaving North County generally go where there's family, whether it be Michigan or Arkansas or Florida.
There's no question the influx of people to North County--both coastal and inland--continues by far to outweigh the outflow. More than 810,000 people live in North County today, twice as many as a decade ago. The newcomers grumble a lot less than old-timers, too, according to a recent Los Angeles Times poll.
The March poll, which surveyed 1,134 North County residents, nevertheless found that 1 in 4 had considered moving out of the county. Seventeen percent expressed dissatisfaction with their communities; 44% believed the quality of life in North County had worsened during the past decade, and 41% listed traffic as the region's biggest concern.
Ask Frances and George Stutsky, and they'll tell you about the traffic. Last month, the couple left their longtime Oceanside home to live in Camarillo in Ventura County, a move prompted in part by frustratingly heavy traffic. Like the Paparians, they had moved here from Los Angeles in the 1970s because of that city's gridlocked highways.
"We said let's retire early, tighten our belts and move to (North County), where it's peaceful and quiet and country," said Frances, 65. "We used to laugh at the traffic here, and look at it now."
When the Stutskys first began spending weekends in North County in 1975, Interstate 5 in Oceanside saw fewer than 70,000 cars a day during the week, according to traffic counts compiled by the San Diego Assn. of Governments. In 1988, the latest year for which figures were available, 135,700 cars a day traveled the same stretch. The number of cars driving California 78 in the Oceanside area more than tripled from 1975 to 1988.
After retirement, Bill and LaVonne Smith managed to avoid most of the congestion by scheduling all their driving during non-peak hours. But they couldn't do anything to keep the noise of nearby I-5 from invading their bluff-top Solana Beach home of 17 years. So three years ago they moved to Idyllwild in Riverside County, an area Bill calls "the best-kept secret of Southern California."
"It's so quiet up here that I can go out on the deck and hear the trees growing," he said.
Before moving, however, they had to persuade someone to buy their North County home and put up with the racket from the traffic below.
"Everyone would come to see our house, and they'd say, 'We love your house, but oh, the noise from the freeway,' " Smith said.
Burdensome traffic isn't the only factor behind the moves of longtime North County residents. The Paparians, for example, felt the cost of living was getting so high that "staying would have been like strangling yourself," Gail Paparian said.
Money will stretch a lot further, too, for Encinitas residents Amy and Bruce Stephens when they and their two young children move to rural Hawaii later this summer. They've bought a two-acre coffee farm in the tiny town of Captain Cook, on the large island of Hawaii, where they estimate their net monthly housing costs will drop from about $1,300 to $600. At least six other families or couples have moved from North County to the same area in the past four years.
Like them, the Stephenses want a more rural lifestyle, said Amy Stephens, 29, who has lived in North County since age 6.
"It just seems to be getting too grown-up here," she said. "There's just too much of everything--too much smog. The air has really gotten bad here. Too many people. So much traffic and so many people is what I really don't like, not having the room to move. And now, with children, I notice things like all the signs up saying the water's not safe to swim in from all the sewage overflow."
Large class sizes--her daughter's first-grade class has 33 students--are another unwelcome byproduct of the growth that is squeezing them out of the region, Stephens said. Where they're moving, the classes are small, the air clean, and two acres is the smallest lot anyone owns.
That's how Stephens remembers the coastal San Dieguito area she frolicked in as a youngster. Her family lived on a one-acre lot on a dirt road. North of there, she remembers only an A&W; restaurant and a few car dealerships.
"After that was Disneyland, I thought," said Stephens, whose parents also moved recently from North County to Washington state.
As North County has filled in much of the open area Stephens remembers from her childhood, the area's crime rate also has jumped. When that crime struck home, it was the last straw for Bill and LaVonne Smith, clinching their decision to move.
One evening, LaVonne was in bed asleep, and Bill had fallen asleep on the living room couch with lights and television still on. Thieves entered the house through a screen door, which was open to air out the house after a three-week trip. They stole jewelry and cash as the couple slept.
"It was a frightening experience," Bill said. "From then on, I didn't feel easy about living there."
Crime also pushed Jim Ham to move to Boulder, Colo., two weeks ago. Stereo thieves have broken into his car four times in the past couple of years, and two weeks ago he was struck by a hit-and-run driver. As a Federal Express courier, Ham also sits in more traffic jams than most commuters.
"I've really gotten some big-city feeling around here," said Ham, 31, a Del Mar resident and avid triathlete. "It's just gotten to be the place where I know I don't want to settle down and stay. There just seems to be too many people for the area to support. If what happens in the next five years is anything like what happened in the last five years, there's going to be serious problems."
From 1980 to 1989, the number of crimes reported in Escondido rose 92%, from 4,048 to 7,757, according to San Diego Assn. of Governments figures. In San Marcos and Vista, the increase is even more stunning. From 1985 to 1989, reported crimes rose 121% in San Marcos, from 687 to 1,520, and 98% in Vista, from 1,621 to 3,209.
Before they moved last year, Ray and Aena White noticed crime creeping into their Vista neighborhood. They had moved to Vista in 1979, after nearly 40 years in the Los Angeles area, to find cleaner air and less traffic, density and crime.
"We found that for a while, but it didn't last too long," said Aena, 72. "Now there's too many people, too much smog. It's a rat race."
The faster pace in much of North County also has made people less friendly since the Whites moved there, she said.
"In the first place, most of those people are working themselves to death to pay for the houses for which they're paying five times as much as they should. I can understand why they're not friendly."
Last June, the Whites moved to Oregon with their daughter and her husband, who lived in Encinitas. The two couples bought three-quarter-acre lots next to each other 1 1/2 miles outside of Corvallis, a town of about 43,000 nestled in a valley between the Coast Range and the Cascades.
"This is bucolic out here," Aena said. "It's so quiet it's ridiculous."
Like the countryside in "The Little House," the fields near their houses are filled with daffodils of every variety and color, she said. Flowers brighten up parking lots and streets in the city center and hang in baskets from every window.
Crime is so rare, she said, that a daffodil stand just outside of town trusts buyers of the 98-cent bunches to leave a dollar and take their change from a margarine carton full of pennies.
"They leave the whole thing out there in front of God and everybody," White said, still incredulous after 50 years of locking everything in sight. "Now that's trusting your neighbor."
Although several recent transplants from North County spoke of concerns about the increasing Latino influence in the area, White said it was the treatment of immigrants that she was glad to escape.
"I couldn't stand any longer to see the way the Mexicans were having to live," she said. "No one was doing anything for them. They were having to live in little holes in the ground. I think it's an unbearable situation. Nobody should have to live that way."
Still, White said, she retains fond memories of Southern California and North County and feels some sadness at leaving.