When Sid Bomhard and her husband, Bill, moved to Mission Viejo in 1967 they found a quiet community of 3,000 people accessible from Los Angeles and northern Orange County by a two-lane road.
Their neighborhood was surrounded by grazing land, and they often encountered deer, coyotes and other wild animals outdoors. The quiet life style compensated for the fact that the nearest supermarkets were in Tustin to the north and San Juan Capistrano to the south.
Things have changed a lot since then. There are 20 times as many people in the planned community now, and the south Orange County area for which Mission Viejo and neighboring Irvine serve as gateways has expanded to encompass about one-sixth of the county's 2.1 million residents.
The growth is far from finished. Officials in government and in development are predicting changes almost as great as those of the last 20 years between now and the turn of the century.
If plans on the drawing boards are carried out, the equivalent of four more present-day Mission Viejos will spring up in Irvine and south Orange County in the next 15 years.
Among them will be the 20,000-home Aliso Viejo community adjacent to Mission Viejo, a doubling of Irvine's present population with the addition of 30,000 homes and expansion of its borders through annexation, two new communities on the present O'Neill Ranch that are planned to include more than 16,000 homes, and construction of 15,000 homes in San Clemente that will more than double the city's population.
A handful of smaller projects, including the projected 7,700-home completion of Mission Viejo, several thousand new homes in San Juan Capistrano and about 1,500 homes in Laguna Beach, will add another 20,000 dwellings. In addition, thousands of acres are being devoted to commercial and industrial expansion designed to bring tens of thousands of jobs.
When other small-scale housing projects are added, the projected result will be a south county population of about 620,000 at the turn of the century, a 70% increase over today, which will give the area about a quarter of the county's total population. That means more than half of the county's total projected growth for the period will take place in south county.
"The fact is that people are beating down the doors to live in south Orange County," said Irvine City Councilman Dave Baker.
Many residents and city officials agree with projections that foresee south county growth on a grand scale through the remainder of the century. The path to these goals is likely to be bumpy, however. There is a growing number of critics who say they see significant problems with such rapid growth. Laguna Beach City Councilman Dan Kenney, for one, says he observes a "changing political consensus" that favors curbing growth.
"My concern is that we preserve the quality of life we enjoy in Orange County, and particularly in south Orange County," Kenney said. "If we don't preserve it, we're going to be the mirror image of places like Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley that many of us moved away from."
Two other key factors--the economy and road construction--also could cool the pace of expansion. An economic slowdown like the recession of the 1980-82 could stifle housing and business growth, officials say.
And three major freeway projects in the county, two of them planned to traverse much of south county, could be stopped or scaled down by a lack of funding, environmental concerns and the opposition of those who live near them.
Some of the opposition to south county's projected growth has begun to coalesce around the issue of whether to build the freeways.
If the proposed San Joaquin Hills, Foothill and Eastern freeways are stopped or substantially scaled back, development plans on county land--every major project outside of Irvine and San Clemente--"would have to be completely replanned and rethought," according to county Advance Planning Division Manager Bryan G. Speegle.
Irvine officials also expressed concern about the impact on their city if the freeways aren't built. On the other hand, San Clemente Community Development Director Harry S. Weinroth said he doubts his city's plans will be affected even if the roads aren't built.
Laguna Beach officials have been among the most vocal critics of growth. With little room for their city to grow or to accommodate the increased flow to its popular beaches brought by new development, they have limited growth inside city borders and spoken against growth plans outside them.
The city has been particularly vocal in its criticism of the proposed San Joaquin Hills Freeway, a 14-mile road from Newport Beach to San Juan Capistrano that would cross some of the most valuable undeveloped real estate in California.
County officials and supporters of the freeway say it is needed to serve current residents, but Laguna Beach officials say the road, which has been planned for up to 17 lanes, is too wide and will have too drastic an effect on the environment.