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LOST IN ORANGE COUNTY : You Can Be Street-Wise and City-Smart, but Even Adventurous Drivers Find It's a Jumble Out There

November 05, 1987

Stories of misdirected motorists and puzzled pedestrians are legion in this county of tangled streets and clogged highways. It is almost inevitable that, at one time or another, anyone who has driven, ridden or walked in Orange County has gotten lost.

Pat Selbinger can find her way just fine these days. She even works for a greeting service, welcoming new people and helping them get around town. But seven years ago, when she and her husband moved to Mission Viejo from South Carolina, the situation was a little different.

"I've lived all over the country," she said, "and it was the hardest adjustment of all of my moves."

She recalled one of her first driving adventures here, when she had to attend an evening meeting for her children's school at a parent's home. She followed a friend's directions: Via Victoria to Trabuco Road, go west on Alicia Parkway. Then to Montebello Place which wound and curved and finally changed names--becoming Avenida Veronica, where the meeting was held.

When the meeting ended, Selbinger said she hoped that she could find her way home. That shouldn't be difficult, someone said--she was in her housing tract and her home was just a short walk around the corner. Says a street-wiser Selbinger today: "Now I've learned the shortcut." You don't have to be a newcomer to get lost. Last Saturday, an Irvine woman who has lived in the county four years was searching vainly for a retail store whose owner told her over the phone: "We're at the corner of Harbor Boulevard and Chapman Avenue." After driving around the busy intersection for 20 minutes, she finally got out of the car in pouring rain. Standing under an umbrella at a gas station telephone on the corner of the two streets, she called the store.

"I can't find you and I'm at the corner of Harbor and Chapman," she said with desperation. "Oh," the owner said, "you must be at Harbor and Chapman in Anaheim . We're at Harbor and Chapman in Fullerton ." Only in Orange County, she thought.

If a wayward motorist can overcome pride and disregard embarrassment, he often will turn to the presumed expert on finding one's way: The gas station attendant.

"A lot of people ask me where Irvine Boulevard and 4th Street are," said a bemused Anthony Morgan, who works at a Tustin gas station.

Where are Irvine Boulevard and 4th Street?

"Right there," Morgan said, pointing to the road in front of the station.

From where he stands behind the cash register, it's as clear as can be. To Morgan's left, the street is called Irvine Boulevard. To his right, the same street has a different name, 4th Street.

"We're right on the border of Tustin and Santa Ana," Morgan said. Just about where the unleaded gas pump stands, the street names change. "That's what causes the trouble," Morgan said.

"Somewhere a long time ago, someone decided service station people know where all the streets are in all the world," observed Morgan's co-worker Steve Inman. "We had a guy come in here and ask where 134th Street is. I said: 'What city?' And he said: 'Los Angeles.' "

It may be little solace for those wandering the byways of Orange County, but the seed of their discontent was planted long before their arrival.

"Part of the dilemma . . . is when Orange County was first being settled in the early 1800s and the Mexican and Spanish land grants were being given . . . the most significant line that was set up was the line that follows the Rancho Santiago land grant," said Richard Ramella, a former county planner now with a Newport Beach consulting firm.

That line, he said, which was roughly the path of old Newport Boulevard, ran perpendicular to the coast rather than north and south. When land was divided into parcels east of the line, boundaries were drawn perpendicular to the coastline, giving everything a sort of northeasterly slant.

But when the U.S. Geological Survey came along years later, everything west of the diagonal was marked off in standard mile-square grids oriented strictly north and south, east and west.

"That was the beginning of the confusion," Ramella said. "Right in the middle of the county, everything changes."

Ramella concluded that "the King of Spain has had more to do with our problems than any planner."

But Spanish royalty had nothing to do with the woes of the Laguna Niguel Ritz-Carlton.

"One of the appeals of the hotel is it's hidden away," said Linda Adams, Ritz-Carlton spokeswoman. "It really was a problem when we first opened."

The posh hotel opened for business in 1984 on a bluff overlooking the ocean, just off Coast Highway. The key word here is "off."

"We were not allowed to put a sign on the street," Adams recalled. "We even thought of buying a bus shelter sign to say: Turn right for the Ritz-Carlton."

After three years it is easier to find the hotel, probably because the cross street intersecting Coast Highway was renamed "Ritz-Carlton Drive."

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