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Opinion : Facing the County's Crowded Future

March 17, 1985|JOHN ERSKINE | John Erskine is executive director of the Orange County Chapter of the Building Industry Assn.

The opinion pages, of late, have been a veritable smorgasbord of curses and cures for that which plagues Orange County--gridlocked freeways, high-priced housing and noisy airports. At times, it seems cause enough to make one pack up the Volvo and head out in search of low-tech and wide-open spaces.

And now we read about a new, self-serving coalition of south county naysayers calling themselves "Orange County Tomorrow."

Orange County Tomorrow! One can imagine that it's easy to contemplate a rosy tomorrow from the comfy confines of Nellie Gail Ranch, Turtle Rock and Laguna Beach, and not worry one bit about employee housing or a reasonable road network for those of us who work for a living.

At the risk of getting their fingernails dirty, perhaps some of these Ph.D.s of urban elitism should consider joining those who are working toward more immediate solutions to all that ails this county, rather than political posturing and finger-pointing.

Perhaps one more diagnosis will help prevent further urban quackery.

Orange County's most-discussed and least-addressed problem is its outmoded freeway system. The "arterial sclerosis" of this system is a symptom of the concomitant negative effects of two decades of a robust economy, a relatively high employment rate and a stagnant transportation system.

There were 1.1 million Orange County residents in 1965, compared with 2.1 million in 1985, almost a doubling of the population in just 20 years. With 96.5% of the work force employed and going to and from work on a stunted freeway network that came to a screeching halt in the 1960s, is it any wonder we spend so many of our waking hours on the road?

The prescription for our traffic woes is clear:

- Hasten completion of the $1.4-billion plan to expand and improve the superannuated Santa Ana Freeway.

- Improve circulation, signal synchronization and bottlenecks on Beach Boulevard and other west and north county arterials.

- Provide for a combination of developer fees, gas-tax dollars and, perhaps, toll roads to complete the three new transportation corridors that will assure southern Orange County a measure of mobility equal to that enjoyed by North County residents.

But won't more development in south county attract more people and more cars, all of which can turn the three new south county freeways into the latest in lineal parking lots?

The answer is clearly no. Verifiable demographics tell us that Orange County's population will increase to 2.7 million by the year 2000, due primarily to births outnumbering deaths, not to an influx of "outsiders."

When the babies of the '80s become the teen-agers of the '90s, they may not be ready for the latest Irvine town house or a Laguna Niguel condo, but they will certainly be ready for their driver's licenses! Let's hope they'll be able to leave their driveways.

And what about our notoriously high-priced housing? Look again. In the last three years, the county's building industry has responded to the need for employee housing by constructing thousands of units in the $80,000-$90,000 price range, as well as thousands of affordable rental units. Happily, natural economic forces have returned housing in the '80s to what it was intended to be--shelter.

Admittedly, this is not enough. If Orange County communities want to realize the National Planning Assn.'s recent prediction of the second-best job market in the nation in the year 2000, then our elected officials must participate in providing incentives for employee housing within reasonable distances of those jobs. "We want employee housing" must be emblazoned on a welcome mat at every city hall, and at the county Hall of Administration. And, the 10-year-old trend to escalated development fees and a duplicitous permit process must be reversed.

If a stimulus for employee housing here in Orange County is not forthcoming, then one can only expect that a moratorium on new and better jobs is inevitable, and in order.

And, in a county whose economy is the 30th largest in the world, it seems incongruous to have The Duke's name affixed to an airport that does not stand tall. Yet the Board of Supervisors, in a "no-win" situation, has done its political best with the only airport we've got.

Orange County residents should applaud the board's efforts to improve John Wayne Airport while minimizing noise impact, and should keep the pressure on for a new airport site that will do more than satisfy just 50% of our air travel needs in the year 2000.

Those of us in private industry have an open mind toward futuristic cures for Orange County's societal ills: flexible work time, increased telecommunications, Alvin Toffler's "electronic cottage," and work that can be done from the home. Some of these concepts have immediate merit. Others will take time.

But Orange County's health is not that bad. And, as much as we strive to find the ultimate cure for the symptoms of living economically high on the hog, let's not forget what we can do right now.

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