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Commentary : Restoring Confidence in Future

January 03, 1988|MARK BALDASSARE and CHERYL KATZ | Mark Baldassare is a professor of social ecology, and Cheryl Katz is a research associate at UC Irvine. They are authors of the 1987 Orange County Annual Survey report and conduct newspaper opinion polls. and

The findings from the 1987 Orange County Annual Survey point to some rocky times ahead. Residents are less than satisfied with the county's current quality of life--most say things are going only a mediocre "somewhat well." Confidence in the future is at an all-time low, with a majority of residents expecting the county to become a worse place to live.

And as Orange County turns into a "disurb"--a dense, industrial and self-contained suburban region--nearly half of the residents appear to be pining for a return to the county's simpler past.

What is the cause of unprecedented gloominess about life in Orange County? Residents' deepening distress with current development and freeway conditions, the survey of 1,010 Orange County adults finds. Orange County is becoming a two-problem region, with nearly three in four residents naming growth and traffic as the biggest problems. Concern over these twin issues makes residents especially negative about the county's future. Moreover, it sets the stage for a citizen revolt against the status quo in the coming year.

The proposed June, 1988, growth initiatives are receiving strong early support. By a 4-1 margin, county residents approve of a city measure that will only allow new developments if traffic conditions around the proposed sites meet acceptable standards.

Nearly the same margin favors such restrictions countywide. And 68% of residents favor both city and countywide measures. Today it appears likely that residents will send a message to their local leaders in 1988 by voting to restrict new construction.

In the next six months, we will hear arguments for and against the growth initiatives. Some will claim that the initiatives will raise housing prices, lower employment levels, cost government a fortune to implement and ultimately lower the standard of living.

Others will try to prove that our economy, communities and quality of life will improve if the measures pass. If people become convinced that jobs, housing and economic growth are threatened, support could evaporate, leading to a very close vote.

But right now, most residents are convinced that the growth initiatives will do more good than harm.

Whether they pass or not, the growth initiatives should have profound effects on the county in 1988, dominating policy discussions and local political races.

While attention is riveted on growth next year, freeway traffic problems will continue to languish. There are no big new plans proposed for attacking the county's No. 1 problem. Since the growth initiatives focus only on local streets, even the staunchest supporters see the ballot measures as having only limited effects on freeway traffic.

We see a majority of residents calling for the construction of new freeways. But the question remains, as always, who will pay for them? Most residents believe that new freeways will bring new growth and more congestion. A majority also display hopelessness about the situation, with 58% saying that traffic will only get worse, no matter what is done.

Such attitudes will probably prevent the public from supporting a sales-tax increase, next year or any time soon, to help pay for the freeway improvements.

It is important to mention that, amid all this gloom about the place where they live, county residents have become happier with their personal lives. In 1982, just 34% of residents said they were "very happy" with their personal lives. Today, that number has risen to 44%. People are happier in Orange County than they are in other regions, with only 32% answering "very happy" to the same question in a national survey earlier this year.

It is at least partly true that money buys happiness in Orange County, because the two are strongly linked in our surveys. The growth in happiness ratings mirror the growth in household incomes over the past five years. County wealth exceeds the nation's income levels, which accounts for the greater local happiness. Recently, however, residents' income growth has slowed, with the median salary this year rising just 2%. If this trend is the way of the future, happiness levels will stagnate.

In what promises to be a hot political year, Orange County voters will be trying to have it all: more happiness, a good economy, a community more to their liking and solutions to growth and traffic worries.

It will be a most interesting time for those of us who take the pulse of the county. For local leaders and officials, the challenge in 1988 is to restore public confidence in the county's future.

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