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BUSINESS PULSE : SMALL BUSINESS IN ORANGE COUNTY : Foes of Tighter Rein on County Growth Outnumber Backers

May 19, 1989|MICHAEL FLAGG | Times Staff Writer

In late March--after months of deliberation--the Orange County Board of Supervisors adopted a growth-management plan designed to defuse one of the most divisive issues in years.

Had it been up to the county's small-business owners, however, the plan might not have passed at all.

Exactly half of the 522 participants in The Times Small-Business Survey said they opposed "having Orange County officials place stricter controls on local growth and development."

Even so, most were willing to spare some change to deal with the consequences of growth: Nearly two in three supported a sales-tax increase to fund road improvements.

On other issues, poll respondents said the general outlook for small business is bright, expressed concern about inflation and interest rates and questioned the effectiveness of the government's efforts to keep illegal immigrants out of the work force.

The growth-management plan, adopted at about the same time that the Small-Business Survey was sent to business owners, forbids developers to build houses, offices and other buildings unless they first pay to widen roads and otherwise offset the impact.

Among survey participants--who were asked about growth controls in general and not about the plan under consideration by the county--50% said they opposed imposing restrictions. Only 39% favored tighter controls. Another 11% checked the "don't know" box.

Times pollster Mark Baldassare concluded that small-business owners, many of whom sell directly to the public, believe that controls would mean fewer customers for their restaurants, shops and service companies.

In response to another poll question, for instance, 74% of the owners said population growth would benefit their businesses. Only 17% predicted a negative effect.

Those results are hardly surprising. Outside the building industry, it would be difficult to find a group more dependent on a growing local population.

"I want growth left to the free enterprise system," said Kenneth E. Stevens, president of Irvine's $700,000-a-year All Care Services, which provides in-home care to the elderly.

"I don't like the traffic any better than the next guy on the freeway, but I've seen communities where they restricted growth. You get a type of decay there," said Stevens, who described himself as a moderate Republican.

That feeling is not unanimous, though. Ervin R. Cooley, for example, believes growth in the county has finally gotten out of hand.

"I'm not against a moderate amount of growth, but our public officials are not paying enough attention to how people are going to get in and out of our communities," said Cooley, president of Fountain Valley's SBI Inc., a $1.5-million-a-year microfilm company.

"I guess they're listening to the developers and not to us," said Cooley, a registered Democrat who said he often votes for Republicans.

Stevens said he was not aware of the county's new growth management plan; Cooley said he was.

On another public issue, small-business owners said voters should approve a proposed half-cent sales tax to pay for expanding freeways and roads. The poll found that 62% favor such a tax, 33% oppose it and 5% checked "don't know."

A measure under consideration by county officials would increase the sales tax from 6 cents on the dollar to 6 1/2 cents and raise about $3 billion over 20 years. But that's only if it gets on the ballot for a special November election and voters approve it.

The county's builders strongly support the tax, since it would relieve them of some of the financial burden of building roads.

It would also probably help defuse the local slow-growth movement by offsetting its most effective weapon, the increasingly frequent traffic jams that anger voters.

Slow-growthers defeated a similar tax measure at the polls in 1984. They called it a boondoggle designed to open up more of the county to developers.

Some other recent polls also show voters in favor of a tax increase. But experts say that support may be soft and subject to shifts during a hard-fought political campaign.

Barbara A. Ormand, manager of the Anaheim branch of Pasadena's $1.3-billion Community Bank, said the bank favors the tax.

"If the congestion gets much worse, it's going to cause problems for our employees and our customers," Ormand said. "A tax on everybody seems the easiest and fairest way to get it."

That is also the perspective of William P. Ficker, senior partner at the $2-million-a-year Newport Beach architectural firm of Ficker & Ruffing.

"I think it's fairer than a gas tax, for example, because the number of people on the road are probably there in inverse proportion to their ability to pay a tax," he said.

In other words, affluent county residents often live close to their work and hence, use less gas, said Ficker, who described himself as a Republican. The less affluent often have to commute long distances from housing they can afford to their jobs.

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