When Will We Hit Too Much Growth? : State Report Is Dark Cloud but It Has Silver Lining

How much growth is too much? Orange County has undergone extensive development in recent years, and the question is never far from the minds of people who have chosen to live and work in this place in the sun. Nor should it be.

A recent report titled, "Beyond Sprawl," which was jointly prepared by Bank of America, the Wilson Administration's Resources Agency, the San Francisco-based Greenbelt Alliance and the nonprofit Low Income Housing Fund, considered the statewide ramifications of this question. It suggested that economic competitiveness could be harmed by excessive suburban growth, and cited the destruction of wetlands, air pollution and more.

Perhaps its most comprehensive conclusion was that "the postwar formula for success has been overwhelmed by its own consequences." That is, the patterns of development that worked in earlier decades as a way of making life in California attractive eventually led to more expensive housing, congested roads, depletion of developable land and increasing costs of public services.

It sounds very much like some of what has happened in Orange County. One of the significant things about the report is that it added important statewide economic concerns to those about quality of life already being raised locally. The report seemed to suggest that it is possible to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

Much of the recent tension in Orange County over the toll roads and overdevelopment has sprung from the fact that the county's frontier quality has disappeared. We have for some years been at a point where new development has begun to run afoul of quality of life considerations. Two recent news items illustrate the point.

In the first instance, a group of monks at St. Michael's Abbey in Trabuco Canyon broke their routine to go by bus with about 80 teen-age boys from the abbey's live-in prep school to a meeting of the Orange County Planning Commission. They went to protest a proposed housing development on 233 acres of hills and canyons next to the abbey.

The natural setting was important, said Father Vincent Gilmore, the Catholic abbey's spiritual director. "We need a place that's beautiful and uplifts the spirit." Eventually, the developer dropped its appeal of an environmental impact report and was granted more time to come up with a new plan with some participation by the community.

But if that battle has been put off for another day, at about the same time some 25 protesters were marching into the offices of the Transportation Corridor Agencies, voicing their lingering anger over the $1.1-billion San Joaquin Hills tollway. This time, protesters complained about recent mudslides from rains and about costs.

As Orange County has built out, people increasingly have felt passionately about the land in ways like these. Once, it seemed a boundless resource. Now, growth seems to be stepping on someone or other's toes.

The silver lining in the concern about quality of life and the protection of the environment is that various interest groups have demonstrated they can work together to save resources. For example, Michael Pinto, president of the Laguna Canyon Foundation, greeted the state report with a reminder that creations like Laguna Coast Wilderness Park can provide an alternative to the endless sprawl of malls and housing tracts.

The state report sent an important message that we need to balance competing interests and work together in the interest of future generations.

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