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San Clemente: Home Builders' Latest Frontier

December 08, 1985|ROBERT SCHWARTZ | Times Staff Writer

For years, San Clemente has been Orange County's forgotten child, a sleepy beach town cuddling up to the coast, a freeway stop halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego that lacked the glitz of Newport Beach or the glamour of Laguna Beach.

Even as other parts of south Orange County were doubling and tripling in population during the early '70s, San Clemente grew slowly, maintaining its village-by-the-sea character, with new construction largely confined to the small area between the San Diego Freeway and the coast.

But suddenly, this town of Marines, senior citizens, beach bums and moderately wealthy suburban families is bursting at the seams. Orange County's growth wave has finally reached its southernmost city--and a number of the city's residents fear the consequences.

Grading Operations

Millions of cubic yards of dirt have already been moved in grading operations on 7,000 acres of hitherto untouched rolling ranchland--known locally as the backcountry--and houses are going up at a rate that would double the city's developed territory and its population of 31,000 in little more than a decade.

Present plans call for nearly 15,000 houses and condominiums to be built in the next 10 to 15 years. More than 1,600 residential building permits have been issued so far this year--a record 816 of those coming last month as builders scrambled to obtain permits before they are required to pay hefty fees to help underwrite local freeway construction.

The steady southerly suburban sprawl, low interest rates, a strong economy, the freeway fees, concentrated land ownership and a backlog of demand because of an 18-month building moratorium imposed in January of 1981 have all contributed to the unprecedented boom. The city fathers say they are leading the town to economic salvation, but a vocal segment of its residents think they are leading it to ruin.

'It's Too Much'

"Whole hills are being knocked out overnight," said Tom Lorch, an engineer who, with local dentist Brian Rice, has written an initiative that seeks to slow the building boom. "It's too much--it's overwhelming the community. They are turning this city into one we moved here to get away from, not the San Clemente that we know and love."

Nineteen percent of the city's voters signed petitions in favor of the Lorch-Rice initiative, forcing the city to call a special election for Feb. 25 on the issue. The initiative, if approved, would place a limit of 500 units a year on backcountry development, with the building permits to be allocated on a point system based on a number of design and public welfare criteria.

The four backcountry developers--Costa Mesa-based Western Saving & Loan Assn., the Santa Margarita Co., Estrella Properties of Newport Beach and John D. Lusk & Sons--and a majority of the City Council, however, believe that growth is the best way for the city to avoid future budget problems. San Clemente's overburdened street system and undermanned city staff--the police force, for example, ranks last in the county in the ratio of sworn officers per 1,000 residents, according to City Manager James B. Hendrickson--can only be improved by an infusion of new money, most council members say. And they dismiss criticism as unfounded emotionalism.

"This is a town on the move, and people don't know how to react," said Mayor Robert Limberg, a retired businessman who, as senior vice president of Rossmoor Corp., was instrumental in building Leisure World in Laguna Hills. "They see things going on, and they don't understand what they're looking at."

Council Takes Action

The City Council, in fact, took such a dim view of the managed-growth initiative, as Rice and Lorch call it, that it placed its own initiative--essentially an outline of the city's General Plan--on the special election ballot. To do so, council members summoned Limberg, who had not attended the meeting and was resting at home, to come down and break a tie vote.

The council also decided to list its initiative first on the ballot, ahead of the one signed by 4,000 people over a two-month period.

Such bickering is not new to San Clemente. Even the city's founder, Ole Hanson, a former Seattle mayor who began selling subdivisions in his Spanish seaside village 60 years ago, battled in the 1920s with builders who wanted to deviate from the town's strict white-walls-and-tiled-roofs policy. More recently, the city endured several years of political turmoil as the late '70s were marked by council recall elections, staff resignations and firings. Often, the divisive issue was growth, as developers drew up plans to build on their backcountry acres. Finally, in 1981 the city declared a moratorium on backcountry building--one that was not lifted until July, 1982--to give itself time to revise its General Plan.

"We spent hundreds of hours revising that plan, because we weren't ready for the kind of development they were talking about," Limberg said. "The new plan contains standards that never before existed."

Density Limit

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