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And This Is Just the Beginning : O.C. foothill residents would like to stick around a while. That is, if they can afford it, and if their communities retain their hometown feel.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Newlyweds Leslie and Peter Nevarez are happy to call Rancho Santa Margarita home. Despite long commutes to their jobs, they relish its relative isolation and outdoor activities.

But the Nevarezes figure they’ll be moving out of their condominium near the lake in a few years.

Married six months, they have begun thinking about starting a family, and the 1,100-square-foot, two-bedroom condo Peter bought before they were married is just too small for their expansion plans.

They won’t be going far, however. Whenever they move up to a three- or four-bedroom house, it will be right there in Rancho Santa Margarita.

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“It’s a very friendly community,” said Leslie Nevarez, 26, marketing manager for a wholesale tire center in Garden Grove. “We feel very comfortable here, and we feel like this would be a safe place for kids to grow up.”

The Nevarezes aren’t the only southern foothill residents who look to the future and see themselves still living in the same communities they now call home.

Two in three foothill residents expect to be living there in five years, according to The Times Orange County Poll. Reflecting residents’ beliefs that the area is a good place to raise families, seven in 10 parents plan to stay.

Alison Rubalcava, 27, is not sure where she and her family will be living when husband Steve, a Marine Corps captain, gets out of the service in September.

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Not that they don’t like living in a “terrific neighborhood” in Portola Hills, where they moved three years ago. But the mother of a 3-year-old son said their two-bedroom townhouse is too small and, because of the cost of moving into a larger house, they’re thinking of moving to Central or Northern California.

“I’d love to stay in this area if we could manage to afford to buy a real house,” she said, “but in this economy it’s such a faraway kind of dream.”

Jobs, career and the economy were at the top of the reasons poll respondents cited in figuring they will be living elsewhere in five years. They were followed by housing costs and the cost of living, and growth and congestion.

“A lot of the reasons for leaving reflect a concern about the changes the whole region is going through at this point,” said Times pollster Mark Baldassare. “People who move to these remote communities realize that they’ve purchased a house and are settling in a neighborhood, but their livelihood still depends on the health of the entire region: A nice house in a nice neighborhood in a region whose economy is weak, it’s not going to work.”

Although the poll shows that the vast majority of residents in Rancho Santa Margarita, Coto de Caza, Dove Canyon, Portola Hills, Foothill Ranch and Robinson Ranch are just as happy with their communities as the Nevarezes, many express concern over whether their area will remain the same.

As one poll respondent put it: The biggest problem facing his community is “keeping it this way.”

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Growth and traffic are the top two concerns of foothill community residents--a throwback, observes Baldassare, to the county in the 1980s, when Orange County Annual Surveys consistently found four in 10 residents countywide mentioning growth and traffic as the top issues facing the county. Only 18% in the 1993 annual survey mentioned growth and traffic; seven in 10 now name crime, jobs and immigration as the biggest problems in Orange County.

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Although she plans to stay in Rancho Santa Margarita, Leslie Nevarez said she’s “not really happy” about the Foothill tollway “and the shopping centers and the auto mall they’re considering putting out here. It’s going to turn into looking like any other community in Southern California eventually.”

Such fears galvanized many Rancho Santa Margarita residents in January when plans were announced for an 11-dealer auto mall to be built on 36 acres in the community’s 450-acre business park.

Santa Margarita Co. officials project that the auto mall--to be built with an early California look--will generate $1.7 million in annual sales tax revenue and create 520 jobs at the auto center, with an additional 925 new jobs in related businesses.

But about 2,000 residents have signed a petition protesting the auto mall, angrily saying it will bring increased traffic and noise and will ruin their panoramic views and reduce property values.

Although growth is considered a big problem in the new foothill communities, only 38% feel current local measures are not strict enough. Countywide, 45% think growth controls in their areas are not strict enough.

“For some people,” said Baldassare, “they’re looking over their shoulders at what happened in the rest of Orange County and they’re wondering if these new communities will follow the same trend: Once-remote areas will become developed and overcrowded. For that group of people it seems their next step is out of state.”

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Foothill Ranch resident Rene Modino, for example, thinks he and his family may be calling Arizona home within the next five years.

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The move would not only be better for his allergies, he said, but he’s tired of Orange County’s congested freeways.

“You have to leave your house very early to be able to get to work in good time,” said Modino, 40, adding that he leaves home before 5 a.m. to get to his job as a senior mail processor at UCI Medical Center in Orange by 6, and when he gets there “the parking is terrible.”

Favored out-of-state destinations for those who envision packing up and leaving within the next five years include Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Other poll respondents mentioned Northern California or northern San Diego County, while a few were looking to move to the more exclusive foothill community of Coto de Caza. Significantly, only one in 600 said “closer to L.A.”

Indeed, according to Baldassare, “what we’re seeing in this migration to the new foothill communities in Orange County today is the continuing search for the California dream: new lands, new housing, a new start on life.”

At the same time, he said, “there is a continuing search for the perfect suburb, which is close enough to urban areas that you can seek employment, but far enough away so that the residents aren’t troubled by today’s urban ills.”

For the time being at least, he said, “residents seem to feel that the expectations and hopes they had have been fulfilled.” But, as the poll indicates, many fear the problems of the rest of Southern California may catch up to them.

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Rancho Santa Margarita resident Leanne Mosher, 30, is generally positive about her community but figures her family will be living elsewhere, perhaps Arizona, in five years. The reason?

Concern over whether the foothill communities can keep the “big city"--and its problems--away.

Already, she says, she sees more smog on the mountains and more teens hanging out in the strip centers than when her family first moved from Seattle in 1990.

“You can’t really stop that, I guess, but I don’t like it,” Mosher said, adding that her worries about crime have intensified since the birth of her son two years ago. “You see the kids wearing baggy clothes and ripping around in their cars. They’re probably not even gang members, but the possibility that they could be is pretty scary.”

But don’t get her wrong.

“We like it here--a lot,” she said. “It’s open, it’s clean and there are so many young families.”

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SUNDAY: 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.

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

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.

THE SOUTHERN FOOTHILLS: Contentment Mixed with Concerns

A majority of residents in Orange County new suburbs say they expect to be living in the same communities five years from now. And those with children at home are even more likely to planning to stay. However, they do have concerns. Half the residents say that growth, traffic, crime and gangs are the biggest problems in the area.

* Five years from now, do you see yourself living in this community or living somewhere else?

Total Parents Live in this community 64% 69% Live somewhere else 33% 28% Don’t know 3% 3%

* What is the main reason you see yourself living somewhere else? Jobs, career, economy: 26% Housing costs, cost of living: 20% Growth and congestion: 19% Family, friends: 8% Quality of life, lifestyle: 6% Crime and gangs: 4% Quality of public schools: 2% Smog, pollution, climate: 2% Teens, things to do for teens: 1% Other: 12% * What do you think is the biggest problem facing your community today? Growth: 23% Traffic: 15% Crime and gangs: 14% Housing costs: 6% Jobs, the economy: 6% Shopping, entertainment: 5% Local government, services: 4% Public schools: 3% Teens, activities for teens: 3% Other: 1% Immigration: 0% Nothing, don’t know: 20% * With regard to the biggest problems, some responses from southern foothills residents differ dramatically those from Orange County residents:

Southern foothills Orange County Growth 23% 7% Traffic 15% 11% Crime and gangs 14% 29% Jobs, the economy 6% 20%

* Where residents in southern foothills say they previously lived: South County: 35% North County: 30% L.A. County: 12% Elsewhere: 23% * Do you think that government regulations in your community aimed at controlling growth are:

Southern foothills Orange County About right 55% 44% Not strict enough 38% 45% Too strict 7% 11%

Sources: Times Orange County Poll; 1993 Orange County Annual Survey, UCI


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