NEWS ANALYSIS : Santa Clarita's Love-Hate Poll Results Tied to 'Frontier' Myth

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What do the people of the Santa Clarita Valley want? Judging from a recent public opinion poll, they want it all.

They want someone to do something about the area's chronic traffic congestion. And they want developers, not taxpayers, to pay for new roads. But the residents don't want the Santa Clarita City Council to offer developers incentives, such as allowing them to build more houses or condominiums, to encourage them to pay for road construction.

In short, the young city's residents want gain, but no pain.

Such a point of view, of course, is not unique to the Santa Clarita Valley. Experts say similar attitudes are common to suburbs, where a mythical, no-fault version of American democracy has roots as deep as the heavily watered green lawns.

The people streaming into growing urban fringe areas such as Santa Clarita are today's pioneers, and they see themselves staking out claims in an undisturbed land. As such, they will circle the wagons to defend what they have from those who want to follow. Alexander Moore, a professor of anthropology at USC, calls it the "frontier dynamic."

Americans have long held that "those who arrive first are higher ranking," said Moore, an expert in urban anthropology. "The fortress-home ideology is really the hallmark of U. S. suburbia.

"They are buying into the myth that they are escaping the city when, of course, they are taking it with them," he said.

But it is a strong myth and, in Santa Clarita, is held dear by many of the people whose presence helps clog streets and crowd classrooms.

In a public opinion poll of Santa Clarita Valley residents, 78% of those surveyed said growth was causing the valley's major problems. The poll, which was commissioned by the city and released last week, has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.

Pollster Richard Wirthlin oversaw the poll and said it showed an amazingly uniform anti-growth sentiment, all the more remarkable because the respondents were not prompted with a list of problems to choose from.

Of 414 residents polled, 48% admitted that they had moved to the Santa Clarita Valley within the last five years. But the newcomers quickly adopt the attitudes of their neighbors, Wirthlin said. And they are equally quick to blame the next wave of newcomers for their woes.

Three years ago, Santa Clarita Valley voters approved a tax increase to build schools, but levied the tax, which averaged $6,300 a unit, only on future residents. State courts later ruled the tax unconstitutional.

Another example came in April when homeowners attending a City Council candidates forum angrily denounced growth and applauded promises to halt the steady march of development. The forum was held in the sunny back yard of a brand-new home--located in a housing tract that did not appear on street maps printed three years ago.

The anti-growth feelings portend a stormy political atmosphere for a City Council trying to solve the area's problems, and observers agree that it will continue to color debates on almost every major city issue.

For example, a tax initiative to raise $285 million for roads was defeated by a 4-to-1 margin in November. Opponents argued that building roads--as the measure's backers promised--would only encourage more growth.

Not surprisingly, such anti-tax sentiment was mirrored in the poll. The respondents rejected giving developers incentives to build roads, but 52% said traffic was the area's most vexing problem. Having rejected those solutions, the city may now be facing political gridlock as well as traffic gridlock.

So what's a city to do?

Santa Clarita officials admit that the answer is not easy. City spokeswoman Gail Foy wryly observed that the poll should have asked "whether we should buy Lotto tickets."

But the city would have to hit a major jackpot for that to make a difference. A 1988 study by the Southern California Assn. of Governments predicted that the Santa Clarita Valley will need to spend $340 million for road improvements by 2010.

Mayor Jo Anne Darcy said the city must look for innovative ways to reduce traffic, perhaps focusing more on ride-sharing and mass transit, rather than on ways to build roads. She said the city must make the existing road network more efficient with "quick fixes" such as restriping streets, adding turn lanes and synchronizing traffic signals.

The council spent $250,000 on such measures last year and approved $440,000 more in quick fixes last month. In most cases, the flow of traffic has improved as a result, city engineers said.

Councilwoman Jill Klajic, elected to the council in April on a controlled-growth platform, said the city might impose fees on developers to build roads. She also said the city should "start cutting back and start saving our general fund money to build roads."

Just one proposed street, a north-south artery called Rio Vista Road, will cost more than $60 million. The entire city budget approved last week by the council was $48 million.

Given the public's antipathy toward taxes and development, solutions to traffic congestion may be a long time coming, Darcy said. Councilman Carl Boyer III said, jokingly: "I think that leaves us with the possibility that we could solve the problem over 25 years."

One possible solution touted by council members was a proposal that would have let Palmer Associates build 1,452 condominiums in return for an estimated $55 million in road projects. But the council, bowing to unprecedented public pressure and criticism, has already retreated from the proposed swap and is trying to negotiate a deal that would be palatable to homeowner critics.

Klajic said a growth-control ordinance might restore public confidence in the city and make normally unpleasant measures such as taxes bearable. "I think people in the Santa Clarita Valley would be willing to pay extra for the roads if they knew we have some growth limitations," she said.

Last week, a citizens group announced plans to launch just such an initiative. They were bolstered by another finding of the poll--60% of the respondents would support a growth-control initiative.

Despite the complaints about growth, the poll found that Santa Clarita residents love the valley they call home. Eight out of 10 people polled said they were satisfied with Santa Clarita as a place to live. And although valley residents are "screaming loudly" for roads, as Wirthlin put it, they want someone else to pick up the tab.

Is the public asking for too much?

"Probably," Klajic said, after some thought. The attitudes are perhaps unrealistic and somewhat emotional, she said, but are understandable as bulldozers continue to shave down hillsides, clearing the path for yet more housing tracts.

"The county and city," Klajic said, "have aggravated them to that point."

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