Final Frontiers

Photo by Jack GouldMarx called it capitalism's “internal contradictions.” More contemporary wags might simply observe that what goes around comes around.

In any case, it's clear that the county's most powerful developers have become victims of their own greed. Twelve years ago, they led a multimillion-dollar campaign against Measure A, the countywide slow-growth ballot initiative. Several months before the June 1988 election, Measure A looked certain to pass. Then the developers' money arrived in buckets, allowing developers to cast the initiative as a job-killer and tax-raiser, and Measure A was dead. When the smoke cleared, developers such as the Irvine Co. and Arnel Development had outspent the environmentalist opposition 50-to-1.

Then the developers and their allies in government made a strategic mistake: instead of considering how close they'd come to disaster and appropriately reining in their development plans, the developers launched a new, more ambitious round of building. Newport Coast disappeared beneath luxury homes and the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor. Olinda Ranch—more than 600 homes built on the slippery hillsides above Carbon Canyon Road—took root in Brea. Neighborhoods in Aliso Viejo, Laguna Niguel and Mission Viejo sprang from the ground like mushrooms after a rainstorm. So much dense development appeared in Rancho Santa Margarita—fed by the creation of two nearby toll roads—that it became a city in the course of a single decade. And of course, county officials began controversial plans for a massive international airport at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

“The major changes have all been residential,” said Balboa Island resident and community activist Alan Beek. “The last of the open parcels have been built. They've filled in all the spaces, so to speak. And now the public is more fed-up with crowding and congestion.”

“The sentiment in 1988 was that the public didn't want controls on growth,” said Tom Rogers, a San Juan Capistrano resident, former GOP Central Committee boss and one of the authors of Measure A. “That has changed. The people want to protect their own private property. They understand that developers are trying to take away their right to peaceful property.”

Now slow-growth measures are back. They're on the ballots in three OC cities, and they're popular in places that actually voted against Measure A back in 1988.

•In San Clemente, residents fearing the construction of 6,500 new homes and 80,000 additional daily vehicle trips during the next decade are fighting to pass Measure U, which would halt all future development until a road is built connecting the city to Ortega Highway.

•In Brea, the possibility of losing 4,800 acres of pristine hillsides to massive residential development has spurred locals to campaign for Measure N, which mandates a vote of the people before any hillside development until 2021.

•In Newport Beach, the Irvine Co.'s home base, residents are looking down the barrels of two development cannons —the Dunes hotel in Back Bay and massive high-rise construction in a corporate quadrangle next to John Wayne Airport. Their Measure S would also put all future major city developments before the people.

City officials, who frequently ride into office on developer money, are not amused. The Newport Beach City Council sued to keep Measure S off the ballot. When that failed, the council settled on supporting bogus Measure T—an Irvine Co.-backed initiative designed solely to confuse the voters into killing Measure S.

“Measure S scares the development community because it is so mild—it sets no limits on growth whatsoever,” said Beek, one of the Measure S architects. “The developers can do anything at all, just as long as the people approve. That's what scares them.”

Activists in Brea, worried that Houston-based Nuevo Energy Co.—which owns the Brea hillsides in question—may reprise mistakes that led to the now-bankrupt Olinda Ranch development, put Measure N on their city ballot.

“I've been working on city planning for years,” said Brea resident and community activist Claire Schlotterbeck. “Everything I've done is at risk if these hills fall to the bulldozers.”

The Brea activists face a particularly tough fight. A Sacramento-based opposition group shrewdly called “Brea Taxpayers for Local Control” has already raised more than $270,000—virtually all of it from Nuevo Energy. So far, the developers have raised $27 for every $1 collected by the hillside preservationists.

Rogers said the activity makes him “optimistic about the future” and predicts that “someday there will be a general uprising of the voters.” But he also knows that those voters have less and less at stake in the revolution. “Each time an acre gets built out,” Rogers observed, “we have less to save.”

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