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BUSINESS PULSE : ORANGE COUNTY ISSUES & ATTITUDES : Most Executives Favor Slower Growth, Citing Quality-of-Life Factor

May 12, 1988|MICHAEL FLAGG | Times Staff Writer

Breaking ranks with local builders, more than half the executives surveyed by The Times said they would vote for the slow-growth initiative even though they expect it to hurt Orange County's economy.

Most of the 562 executives polled by The Times said they thought the initiative would cut jobs and raise housing prices. And even more said their own businesses would suffer if voters approve the initiative in the June 7 primary.

But those negatives were offset by the biggest perceived benefit of the initiative: Most of the executives said they thought it would improve the quality of life in Orange County.

"Clearly, some business people are willing to suffer in their businesses a little if they think they're preserving the quality of life," said Terry D. Jacobson of Leason Pomeroy Associates, an architectural firm in Orange. Jacobson opposes the initiative, which the building industry regards as its single biggest threat.

The poll reflects a split in the business community that surprised some in the building industry.

Donald D. Steffensen, president of the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California, said he had not expected support for the initiative to be so strong among business people.

He ascribed this support to the "shortsightedness" of executives in other industries who don't think the initiative will hurt them much.

But Tom Rogers, a leader of the initiative's backers, said he had expected to get support from the business community.

"The top executives in this county realize there's a problem," he said. "The only ones opposing this initiative are the self-serving individuals in the Building Industry Assn."

The Citizens' Sensible Growth and Traffic Control Initiative would allow new development in Orange County only if streets around the proposed sites are improved so that traffic and other conditions meet certain standards.

The building industry says the initiative sets impossibly high standards and would harm the economy by shutting down construction in the southern part of Orange County, where most new homes are going up.

Supporters say the initiative would prevent county government from continuing to approve more construction than the roads can handle.

In interviews, some executives said they resented the rapid development of the county.

"I live in Corona del Mar, and I used to drive to work through the Irvine Ranch and watch the crops change every season," said Anthony D. Christopher, president of A & J Manufacturing Co., a Tustin manufacturer of electronic cabinetry.

"It was really beautiful and peaceful. Now, it's all just houses, and it makes me mad."

And some executives said they thought the poll showed the declining importance of the once-dominant building industry as the county's economy diversifies.

"There's no question that developers are losing their hold on Orange County," said Leland J. Hendrie, president and chief executive of PHD Insurance Brokers Inc. in Garden Grove, who opposes the initiative.

"As they run out of space in the county, there's just less and less development going on."

It is the county's jammed roads that have split the business community. Half the executives said traffic was the county's worst feature.

"People are really unhappy about the congestion," said Kent Dunlap, administrator of the new CPC Laguna Hills Hospital.

"You can ordinarily assume that the more people, the more economic growth, so it's better for business. But at some point there's a saturation, and the county becomes unattractive to people and companies," said Dunlap, who favors the initiative. "I think we're seeing some of that now."

Of the surveyed executives, 55% favored the initiative. Of the rest, 32% said they opposed it, and 13% were undecided.

Counting only executives of companies based in Orange County, support fell to 51%. Of companies based outside the county, 64% supported the initiative.

By contrast, a Times poll in February found that 73% of the county's residents favored the initiative. That support cut across demographic boundaries, including sex, income, age and political parties. Another 13% opposed the initiative, and 14% said they were undecided.

Most observers attribute the initiative's support to frustration over traffic, smog and other problems caused by the county's rapid growth.

Among executives polled, those at small and medium-sized companies tended to favor the initiative by the widest margins.

Those with companies employing between 50 and 99 workers favored the initiative by 57%, with 32% opposed and 11% undecided.

Those with 100 to 249 employees favored the initiative by the widest margin: 59% supported it, while 30% were opposed and 11% undecided.

Of the largest companies--employing more than 250 workers--48% of the executives said they supported the initiative, 35% were opposed and 17% were undecided.

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