Earth First! Ventures Into Lyon Co.'s Den : Ecology: The radical environmentalists' message to the developer was this: Orange County is overdeveloped.


The Trashy Humanoid was there. So was the anarchist with the mask and his buddy who kept waving the black flag.

There they were, 18 or so of them in all, standing in front of the William Lyon Co.'s sleek glass-and-brick headquarters holding up their signs while buttoned-down executives zipped by in their BMWs and Mercedeses and Jaguars, looking puzzled.

It was Earth First! meets the Pinstripes on Thursday in Newport Beach as the radical environmental group picketed Lyon's offices. Lyon is the nation's largest home builder. It built 6,500 housing units last year for $640 million in sales.

Lyon, say the picketers, has helped turn Orange County "into a giant toilet." In case anyone missed the point, they brought along a yellow commode and stuffed one of Lyon's newspaper ads into it.

Mostly young, mostly students, mostly clad in shorts and T-shirts, the protesters held signs that said "Orange County, Not Tract County" and, referring to the florid names Lyon gives its subdivisions: "Fancy Names Can't Hide the Rape of OC Countryside."

Most of the motorists passing the corner of Birch Street and Von Karman Avenue stared blankly at the protesters, who are about as common as mountain lions in this busy neighborhood of gleaming glass office buildings. A few motorists honked and gave the clenched-fist salute to the Trashy Humanoid, who was decked out from head to toe in plastic foam cups, plastic soft-drink bottles, potato chip bags and other disposable trash.

One pair of well-dressed folks in a BMW convertible waited until the traffic light changed and yelled "Get a job!" before speeding off.

In this televised age, the local chapter of Earth First! planned the protest to cash in on the group's recent notoriety--the bomb explosion that hurt two of its members in Oakland last week. It worked. Several television reporters asked earnest questions and newspaper reporters darted about clutching notebooks. At one point the journalists nearly outnumbered the protesters.

Earth First! parts company with its more sedate cousins, the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, in its opposition to all development-- and its willingness to do something about it. Some members espouse "monkey-wrenching," such as the disabling of tractors and other types of sabotage. Earth First! says the two people hurt by the bomb last week were victims; the police say they aren't yet sure whether the two were carrying the bomb somewhere for an act of sabotage.

Earth First!, which says it has about 100 people on its mailing list in Orange County, has also picketed two other big, local developers, the Mission Viejo Co. and the Irvine Co. But those were before the bomb, and the protests drew little attention.

Orange County isn't exactly a hotbed of environmental activism and certainly not of the radical sort. When people here get riled up about development, it tends to be because the traffic's getting heavier or somebody has built more condos in front of their ocean view. And their usual response is to get up a petition or hire a lawyer.

They may like the idea of stopping all construction in their neighborhood, but persuading them to stop construction all across the county just does not sell.

Earth First! members say they know that. But protesting, they say, is better than sitting idly by as the rest of the county goes under the concrete.

"We want people to see this on TV, in the newspapers, and maybe it'll spark something," said Richard Arklin, a substitute teacher from Whittier and an Earth First! member. "We want them to know that no growth is not an extreme opinion.

"Right now we've got a water emergency, a smog emergency, a traffic emergency. We should shut the development down, at least until we figure out a way to solve these things."

While Earth First! may not like him much, Lyon was the subject of an admiring profile in Forbes magazine recently in which he described environmentalists as "well-meaning people" who nevertheless "keep affordable housing from people that need it and increase the cost of housing across this nation."

That, in fact, just about sums up the argument most often advanced by the local building industry: That people continue to move into Orange County and the people already here continue to have babies, and where are you going to put all those people if you don't build more housing?

Adds Richard M. Sherman, a Lyon Co. senior vice president who was at lunch and missed the noon demonstration: "I think it's important for people to recognize the substantial contributions developers make in providing housing, in providing jobs and in providing roads and other infrastructure. That's all I'd have to say."

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