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South County Residents Develop a Voice : Supervisors and Builders Learning That Those Already There Want a Say on Growth

The phenomenon of suburban sprawl has received considerable attention. One study this year in California concluded that patterns of development that had worked in the decades after World War II increasingly were seen as conflicting with concerns about quality of life.

Some of these concerns were raised by South County residents recently when the Board of Supervisors approved a huge new residential community of 8,100 homes to be carved into the hills east of Mission Viejo. At the same time, the plan was well received in business circles, where home building is welcomed as a way out of recession.

The Santa Margarita Co. plans to launch the project within three years and build 400 houses at a time. Managing such new development poses a challenge for the county, which in earlier decades seemed inclined to provide little more than the green lights for developers.

Concerns about overdevelopment that have been heard in the political arena were reflected in the attitude expressed by one supervisor, Marian Bergeson. She said that when the developer eventually returned with a detailed map of where houses, retail centers, schools and commercial areas will be placed, “we can always change some things if we need to.”

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There is now in place in South County a constituency of homeowners who are especially sensitive to what new development will mean for them, both in terms of the value of their investments and in such daily concerns as traffic and air quality.

In 1994, a Times Orange County poll found that many residents were very satisfied with their southern communities. But these same satisfied customers also provide a pool of support for stronger oversight of new development than has existed in the past.

One indication is that since the early boom years of South County development, the environmental movement has found expression in such battles as the future of toll roads. Life in general is more complicated now in South County. There is concern over the delivery and cost of services and infrastructure. Questions of cityhood and loss of revenue to the county make the management of new development a matter of importance to all Orange County residents.

Finding the right balance between environment, jobs and growth tests the quality of county planning as never before. The county can expect to deal with a more informed citizenry in the process, one which properly expects prudent oversight of new development.

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