Sympathy for the Devil

The Register's upside-down campaign for sprawl

In a March 28 defense of uncontrolled real-estate development, Orange County Register editorial writer Steven Greenhut featured an "unapologetic" Ray Watson, millionaire vice chairman of the Irvine Company, the county's most insatiable developer. Watson and Greenhut mocked "the foes of [urban] sprawl," claiming the "do-gooders" have "some fundamental misconceptions" about development.

"What are [they] trying to fix?" asked Watson, who-along with a wide-eyed Greenhut-would have us believe that too often it is the "anti-sprawlers" and not the "greedy developers" who control politicians with the power to green light, curtail or nix real-estate projects. "Orange County represents the kind of development that smart-growthers love to hate, and that's good news," wrote Greenhut. "If this is sprawl, give me more of it!"

There is little chance that Greenhut will be disappointed. Orange County history is, after all, an encyclopedia of unsavory developer victories over local residents-"privately funded," multibillion-dollar toll roads that turn out to be taxpayer-subsidized; developers who pour tens of millions of dollars into political campaigns to promote more sprawl. Even in the smallest places, developers score big victories. We were reminded of this sad fact when city officials in Mission Viejo recently handed Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group a $41.6 million taxpayer-funded subsidy to rebuild a privately owned shopping mall.

But Greenhut is not troubled by nauseatingly cozy relationships between developers and government officials. He's new in town, having moved here in August 1998 from the Register's right-wing ideological training grounds at the company's small Lima, Ohio, paper. He finds Orange County's sprawl "nifty" and theorizes that its presence indicates nothing more than good old-fashioned American freedom. Obscene daily traffic congestion? No problem. "People almost always are polite in traffic," wrote Greenhut. "I don't recall anyone honking at me as I've negotiated my way around the freeways, paying more attention to a road map than to the roadway."

Greenhut does, however, see evil lurking behind the "Orange Curtain." He finds it "chilling" when he hears "Earth savers" encourage fellow citizens to "grab political power" and fight developers. According to Greenhut, "Maybe all this chatter about a lack of community spirit is a fiction perpetrated by those with an insidious political agenda."

Greenhut's frustration isn't rare. It has always been fashionable in Orange County to bash ordinary citizens who believe in reasonable, planned growth and who become active in their communities. That is why you'll repeatedly hear the pejorative term "do-gooders" at meetings of local chambers of commerce and from natty building-industry lobbyists. During Merrill Lynch's recent campaign to override valid concerns about proposed dense development at Treasure Island in Laguna Beach, three long-time local residents were vilified as troublemakers and tied to "outside" interests. According to the town's pro-Merrill Lynch politicians Mayor Steve Dicterow and City Councilman Paul Freeman, among those who care "most for our community" is the New York investment-house giant. Ironically, it is the Dicterow-Freeman crowd that consistently screams about "socialism" but eagerly devised a plan to give Merrill Lynch and its corporate associates at least $2.4 million in taxpayer subsidies to build a private resort and houses at Treasure Island.

Such a decidedly pro-development mindset is countywide nowadays. In Huntington Beach, resident Gary McSnin recently wrote City Councilman Dave Garofalo to explain his concerns about construction near the environmentally sensitive Bolsa Chica wetlands. Garofalo's bitter, exaggerated response startled McSnin. "I find almost everything related to the Bolsa Chica environmental-terrorist movement repugnant," wrote Garofalo on city stationery. "I have heard all the arguments from all 32 people for over 25 years. . . . I try to represent all the people with a majority view."

That "majority view" must be supplied to Garofalo by all the corporate interests -including developers-that so generously fund his political campaigns.

Garofalo's response shouldn't be so surprising. Shilling for developers is a time-honored tradition among Orange County's politicians. In the mid-1960s, for example, Irvine Co. executives eyed a public-private land swap around one of California's last substantial southern estuaries: Newport Bay. But state law required that the public receive property of equal or greater value than it was losing. Without breaking a sweat, the company sold the county's elected officials on the deal, claiming the public would receive property valued at $19 million if it gave up land worth only $11 million. The deal seemed too good to be true; it was. Officials at the State Lands Commission blocked the deal after studying the pro-Irvine Co. fine print and learning that taxpayers actually would be giving the company as much as $200 million in bayfront land in exchange for undevelopable property worth less than $6 million-a whopping $194 million windfall. A few years later, the swap was resurrected and approved when Irvine Co.-backed Ronald Reagan became governor.

I was reminded of the Irvine Co.'s glorious public-subsidized coup after Merrill Lynch and its business associates won an April 27 referendum for public subsidies and a crowded development at Treasure Island. In the election aftermath, Dicterow-who was first put into office in 1994, thanks in large part to massive campaign spending and election advice from interests directly tied to Merrill Lynch-was elated but admitted to one troubling concern: not taxpayer subsidies he helped engineer, too many houses, or more traffic congestion or pollution, but empathy for the developer. "Last night's vote did not end it," he said. "We still have-unfortunately for the developer-a long, vigorous development process ahead."

Comments of concern like that must delight Greenhut, who ended his column this way: "It's Orange County. And I can't help but love it."

There will soon be more to love. In addition to Merrill Lynch's Treasure Island project, there are plans for 1,750 new homes in Newport Beach near the Huntington Beach border; 8,000 homes in Lower Peters Canyon in Irvine; 2,600 homes in gated communities and a mammoth resort at Newport Coast; 8,100 homes at Ladera in South County; 4,400 homes and a 267-acre office park near San Clemente; 1,235 homes near the Bolsa Chica wetlands; and perhaps at least 261 homes, commercial offices, retail outlets and a hotel crammed on the historic Dana Point Headlands. In the next few years, developers plan to build 60,000 new homes in the county.

In every one of these cases and in countless more, groups of citizens have organized opposition groups. They have almost invariably been smashed by sly, well-connected and wealthy developers. And the Register has always been there with words of consolation and support . . . for the developer.

Not that the other daily is better. Earlier this year, the Times OC lectured residents to be "pragmatic" and concede development near the Bolsa Chica. The paper also has an active business partnership with the toll road agency, the entity created at the demand of the county's developers. In a May 9 editorial, the Times blasted those few elected officials who don't always kowtow to the Irvine Co. and shamelessly touted the company's supposed overriding concern for "quality of life in the county."

Small World

When it comes to reporting on land development, perhaps no slope is more slippery than the one beneath the feet of Don Dennis, editor of the Irvine World News. The twice-weekly Irvine World News was founded and is still owned by the Irvine Co.; once a week, on Saturdays, it is wrapped up with the Los Angeles Times and delivered to every Timessubscriber in the city. Until recently, when the Register launched its Irvine Citizen, the Irvine World News was also Irvine's only local newspaper. Irvine Co. officials used that exclusivity to guide tenants in its many shopping centers to advertise in the paper; defended the company and attacked its critics in letters to the editor written under assumed names; and deftly directed the paper's story selection. Intervention appears to continue. On May 2, 300 residents of Irvine's exclusive Turtle Rock neighborhood turned out to demonstrate against the Irvine Co.'s plans for a huge residential project in the foothills south of the city. Though the Times ran the story on the front page of its May 3 Metro section, the Irvine World News did not report the event in either of its next two issues. Dennis says it wasn't an oversight but rather a matter of "news judgment" that led him to ignore the demonstration-that and resources. "We have no staffing on Sundays," he said. Does the Irvine World News always ignore the world on Sundays? No, Dennis said; if there's an "important breaking" story, the Irvine World Newswill cover it. Call it the Irvine Small World News, then.

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