Seeking the Suburban Dream : Poll: Residents of South County's master-planned communities say they enjoy their lifestyle despite long commutes, expenses.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

They drive for 20 minutes just to reach the freeway--then commute another 30 minutes or more to work. Their foreclosure rate is nearly twice as high as the rest of Orange County, and many pay extra taxes for new roads and schools. The promised jobs aren't there, there are no movie theaters, no gourmet restaurants, no teen hangouts.

But the latest wave of suburban pioneers who headed to the foothills of south Orange County in the late 1980s and early '90s in search of the California dream firmly believe they've found it: brand-new houses in relatively crime-free communities centered on family life and outdoor activities.

In a recent Times Orange County Poll, residents of Rancho Santa Margarita, Coto de Caza, Dove Canyon, Portola Hills, Foothill Ranch and Robinson Ranch give their communities extremely high marks for livability.

Eight in 10 residents view their communities very favorably, with a scant 2% expressing dissatisfaction. Countywide, only 58% like their towns as much.

Satisfaction is far greater in these new, master-planned foothill communities of South County than in older Orange County cities such as Santa Ana (19%) or Anaheim (32%). Indeed, of the six areas surveyed since 1989, only Laguna Beach (87%) has a higher rating.

And, according to the survey of 600 adult southern foothill residents conducted by Mark Baldassare & Associates, 89% say the hopes and expectations they had when they moved to the area have been realized.

"The suburban dream seems to be alive and well in the new communities in this remote corner of Orange County," said Baldassare, a UC Irvine urban sociologist. "These new communities seem to be filling a growing need as many Orange County residents today are seeking ways to separate themselves from the crime, gangs and urban ills they see as creeping into the older, established areas of the county."

Like the characters in James Hilton's classic, "Lost Horizon," many residents of the southern foothills seem to feel they have found a suburban version of Shangri-La--a comparison that ABC's "20/20" played up in a glowing 1992 segment on Rancho Santa Margarita.

But others are reminded of another work of literature.

"A lot of people in South County call it Whoville, as in the Dr. Seuss book in which everyone in the little town is happy," said Rancho Santa Margarita resident Frank Young, 35. "The idea is it's a very homogenized little community where everyone looks, acts and dresses the same."

But, said Young, a mortgage banker who moved from Laguna Hills three years ago: "There are some definite advantages to living someplace that's nice and clean and well thought out."

The suburban paradise these nearly 40,000 foothill community residents have found is a maze of cul de sacs and greenbelts carved out of the sparse hills of what was once idyllic ranchland.

Red-tiled roofs march up the hillsides in tidy rows. Streets and jogging paths are filled with young families. And signs point the way to even newer developments.

Despite what some may view as look-alike communities, there is variety here--from the multimillion-dollar estates in gated Coto de Caza to the townhouses and apartments in Rancho Santa Margarita, the region's "urban village."

The residents, however, have much in common. They are more likely than the rest of the county to be white, to own their homes, to be affluent and politically conservative. They are also more likely to be married, have children living at home, to be employed and to be younger than 55. But they are less likely to attend church.

Any negatives to living in an area so far removed from jobs, shopping and entertainment are, according to the poll, outweighed by the positives: their communities' outdoor recreation, parks and open space.

The area's public schools and the clean, new homes and neighborhoods also receive high marks, although critics decry their uniform appearance and strict community codes and regulations.

Even the area's remoteness is viewed as an asset, ranking at the top of what residents like best about living in their communities.

"You don't hear sirens," said Craig Lipus, 38, director of sales and marketing for an electronics company who lives in Portola Hills. "I don't want to call where I live country living, but you have to really drive out to hit the hustle and bustle. It really is peaceful."

Lipus, a Southern California native who moved his family to the foothills from Texas four years ago, recalls once driving home at 2 a.m. and seeing "the biggest buck deer I ever saw in my life crossing the road. And there's coyotes; I chased a coyote out of my back yard just before he got my kids' rabbits."

Their distance from urban Orange County keeps foothill residents relatively safe from crime; a Sheriff's Department official calls it one of the most crime-free areas in the county. And the newness and cleanliness of their communities contributes to residents' overall sense of safety.

"It just feels like there is virtually no crime out here whatsoever," said one Rancho Santa Margarita resident. "My wife leaves the garage door open and the house unlocked when she goes to the grocery store and picks up the kids from school, and you can't do that at all in Garden Grove or Huntington Beach."

Given the area's relative safety, foothill community residents overwhelmingly view their communities as a good place to raise children--with nearly nine in 10 strongly agreeing and virtually no one taking issue.

Southern foothill residents are far more positive about their communities' suitability for children than are people in South County (56%) or North County (36%).

"It's really nice out here," said Susan Lokietz, a mother of two children, ages 3 and 7, who moved to Rancho Santa Margarita from Mission Viejo in 1989. "We have great neighborhoods, good schools and there's lots of kids and things to do."

Residents of the foothill communities, who are much more likely than the rest of the county to be raising children, also feel more secure about their kids' safety. Only 13% say they worry "a great deal" about their children becoming crime victims at school or in the neighborhood. Countywide, 43% worry a lot.

Residents, of course, pay a price for living in such a remote corner of Orange County: the frustration of spending time on the road.

In Terrence Dooley's case, he pays a very big price indeed.

For the past six months, the 40-year-old Rancho Santa Margarita engineer has been commuting to work at UCLA. "Doing the drive is a very big drain," he said. "It produces a lot of stress, but you learn to cope with it."

And not surprisingly, because so many residents bought their homes at or near the height of the Southern California real estate market, poll respondents also listed economic issues as top concerns.

Barbara Priestley, whose family moved to Rancho Santa Margarita from Utah in 1990, may be typical.

The $207,000 house they bought is now worth less than $190,000, she said. But Priestley, 41, takes heart in the fact that three realtors recently called unsolicited to say that their house, in an area not far from the town's lake, would be "hot" again by the summer.

But despite their worries, residents find enjoyment in the region's active outdoor lifestyle.

An overwhelming majority--82%--say they are "very satisfied" with sports, recreation, parks and open space; only 4% are unhappy. Of those who complained about the lack of facilities during follow-up poll interviews, most live in Portola Hills, where efforts to build at least one neighborhood park have run into controversy.

Many compared the region's atmosphere to that of the small towns of long ago, an era of friendliness, support and helpfulness they say is lost in much of the rest of fast-paced Southern California.

"There was a real camaraderie out here," said Richard Thompson, 43, whose family was among the first wave of homeowners in Rancho Santa Margarita in late 1986. "Because we were quite a way from normal shopping areas, we did a lot of lending. If somebody had rented a rototiller, everyone got to use it.

"There was a real pioneer spirit out here because we were all getting started at the same time."

Thompson said much of that community spirit still exists, with five of his original 10 neighbors remaining on his street.

But for some, there's a downside.

"I like it here but I think mainly it's a great place for younger people, young families," said Judy Gibbs, 59, who bought a condominium in Rancho Santa Margarita in 1988. "There's not a lot of cultural diversity either. The people are all the same."

Dooley, the UCLA commuter, calls a few of his neighbors close-minded and "insular." He heard that several even complained about his drinking a beer in his front yard one weekend afternoon.

"Incredible!" he said.

And the level of satisfaction with movies, restaurants and entertainment in general is quite low, the poll showed. Only one-third say they are satisfied with their dining and entertainment options, compared to 57% countywide.

No theaters exist in any of these six communities, although plans call for multiscreen cinema complexes for both Rancho Santa Margarita and Foothill Ranch.

Residents also cite a shortage of good restaurants, other than the fast food outlets that have sprung up in Rancho Santa Margarita's new shopping centers.

"You have to drive pretty far to get to a decent restaurant," said Coto de Caza resident Bill Cowdrey, 34, who often travels to Irvine or Newport Beach to go out to dinner.

Overall, however, life is good in the southern foothills.

For Thompson, the beauty of the area--with the view of Saddleback, the foothills, the valley--still overwhelms him at times. A graveyard-shift worker, Thompson recalls returning home one clear, beautiful morning recently and congratulating himself all over again on the decision to move there.

The view while driving home over Alicia Parkway, he said, "was just breathtaking."

HOW THE POLL WAS DONE

The Times Orange County Poll was conducted by Mark Baldassare & Associates. The telephone survey of 600 adult residents in Rancho Santa Margarita, Coto de Caza, Dove Canyon, Portola Hills, Foothill Ranch and Robinson Ranch was conducted Feb. 10-13 on weekday nights and weekend days. A computer-generated random sample of telephone numbers was used.

The margin of error for all respondents is plus or minus 4%. For subgroups, the error margin would be larger.

TODAY: A look at the people who live in Orange County's southern foothills--and why.

MONDAY: The recession had a crushing impact on residents, who saw their home values drop, and on many developers, who had to restructure their plans.

TUESDAY: Families are flocking to the new suburbs, where parents praise the many activities for youngsters. But for the teens, there's not much to do.

WEDNESDAY: Living so far out means secluded neighborhoods and horrendous commutes. Though access is improving, traffic congestion remains a problem.

THURSDAY: Two-thirds of foothill residents expect to be living in the area when 1999 rolls around. But what does that future hold?

THE SOUTHERN FOOTHILLS: The Living Is Good

There isn't much doubt that life on the county's suburban frontier is congenial. Eight in 10 residents have a very favorable view of their communities, a degree of satisfaction much stronger than that found countywide and in league with some local garden spots. Behind this satisfaction is a huge majority saying their hopes about living in their community have been realized:

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What is your overall view of your community as a place to live?

Southern foothills Orange County Very favorable 82% 58% Somewhat favorable 16% 35% Somewhat unfavorable 1% 5% Very unfavorable 1% 2%

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Percent saying they have a "very favorable" view of where they live: Laguna Beach: 87% Southern foothills: 82% Newport Beach: 75% Huntington Beach: 71% Anaheim: 32% Santa Ana: 19% *

Would you say the hopes and expectations you had about living in this community have been realized? Yes: 89% No: 9% Don't know: 2% *

The Appeal

Distance from the rest of the county and new homes head the list of items that appeal to residents.

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What do you like best about living in your community? Remote area: 23% New homes: 21% Neighbors: 17% Outdoors: 14% Safe from crime: 10% Convenient: 4% Things to do: 4% Schools: 2% Prestige address: 1% Affordable housing: 1% Nothing, don't know: 3% *

The Great Outdoors

Eight in 10 say they are very satisfied with the open space, outdoor sports and recreational aspects of their new neighborhoods; about two in three say the same thing about their housing and the local public schools. Social amenities such as entertainment opportunities and commercial establishments don't rate as well.

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How satisfied are you with each of these features of your community?

Very Somewhat Not satisfied satisfied satisfied Outdoor recreation; parks, open space 82% 14% 4% Your housing 68% 29% 3% Public schools 67% 27% 6% Movies, restaurants, entertainment 34% 52% 14% Shopping malls and stores 32% 49% 19% Traffic and transportation 22% 51% 27% Job opportunities 18% 47% 35%

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Percent saying they are "very satisfied":

Southern foothills Orange County Outdoors, parks 82% 51% Housing 68% 56% Public schools 67% 41% Movies, restaurants, entertainment 34% 57% Shopping malls and stores 32% 62% Traffic and transportation 22% 8% Job opportunities 18% 50%

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Community Images

Virtually no one living in the new suburbs takes issue with the idea that their communities are good places to raise children; nine in 10 agree that it is distinct from the rest of the county and generally safe from crime and gangs. The feeling they live in a child-friendly place is much stronger in the southern foothills specifically than in either South County generally or North County:

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Do you agree or disagree that your community is:

Agree Agree strongly somewhat A good place to raise children 88% 10% Separate, distinct from rest of Orange County 55% 33% Safe from the problems of crime and gangs 50% 39% A convenient place to live 44% 40% A place with lots of things to do 44% 39%

Disagree A good place to raise children 2% Separate, distinct from rest of Orange County 12% Safe from the problems of crime and gangs 11% A convenient place to live 16% A place with lots of things to do 17%

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Percent saying they "strongly agree" about their own area:

Southern South North foothills County County A good place to raise children 88% 56% 36% A convenient place to live 44% 43% 62%

Sources: Times Orange County Polls 1989-94; 1991 Orange County Annual Survey, UCI

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