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North County Finds Itself at the Crossroads : Life style: In the search for happily ever after, North County loomed as paradise found. But traffic woes, unaffordable housing and crime are turning it into paradise lost for many, a Times poll has found.


For most of his working life, Harry Richards hopscotched across the nation, searching for his share of happily-ever-after. In 1956 he headed west, turned left and settled in San Diego. Eighteen years later, troubled by the city's changing face, he ultimately settled in North County--a quiet little place that was a life style or two removed from the city.

Today, the 64-year-old Encinitas man finds that happily-ever-after in North County was but a time share--and he is being pushed out by others knocking at the door who say it is their turn.

He talks of growth, of traffic, of migrant workers, and of moving somewhere else. Like North Carolina.

"When I first moved here, San Diego was a beautiful and relatively uncrowded place," said Richards, who worked in the aircraft industry and later in county government. "But this place isn't beautiful anymore. It's a lousy, urban, overdeveloped, smog-ridden place to live."

Like Richards, more than two of every five North County residents feel the region's quality of life has worsened during the past 10 years, a Los Angeles Times Poll has found. In fact, they are more than twice as likely to say the 1980s wrought a change for the worse in the county than to say it changed life for the better--44% to 18%. Nearly one in five are now dissatisfied with their own communities as well.

Clearly, disillusionment is setting in among a large number of North County residents--especially among old-timers--with complaints about traffic and growth, of drugs, the impact of migrant workers, and of housing becoming too expensive.

How bad has it gotten? Bad enough that one in four North County residents during the past year considered moving away from North County. And their preferred destination was out of state.

The Times Poll was conducted last month to develop a picture of North County: What is it? Who lives there? Why did they come? What do they like--and dislike--about the region?

It showed that newcomers to San Diego County are bringing with them different values, life styles and perceptions than those held by longtime residents.

Fewer of the people who have lived in the county for five years or less are U.S. citizens. They show less political consciousness. A greater percentage of them are white-collar workers. Two-income households are more prevalent--yet a greater percentage of them are living in apartments because they can't afford to buy a home. These more recent arrivals to North County are focusing less on their health and more on being successful and creative than longtime North County residents.

"San Diego is being drawn--kicking and screaming--into the 21st Century," poll Director I.A. Lewis said. "Life's goals are changing. Life styles are changing, and this is having an effect on the traditional, family-oriented attitudes. And it's being felt more poignantly in North County, which is where people went to protect those more traditional values."

Among other general findings:

* Drugs are the biggest problem facing San Diego County, residents of North County say. But when they focus their attention only on North County, the biggest problem on North County minds is traffic.

* A plurality of residents believes the environment should be protected--even if it slows economic growth and increases government spending. Along with air pollution, traffic emerges as their topmost environmental concern, followed by ocean pollution and the quality of drinking water.

* By almost a 2-to-1 margin, people are more likely to take a dim rather than sanguine view of the Latino influence on San Diego County.

* There is a sense that North County is separate and distinct from the rest of the county--but there is disagreement as to what that distinction is. Among the more popular perceptions are that North County, as a whole, is more affluent, more family-oriented and more environmentally conscious.

* More people consider North County as a geographic collection of communities than as a region with its own identity and state of mind. "There are too many different kinds of people living in North County to have any common interests--except for property values," says Jeff Niewiadomski, who moved from an apartment in La Mesa to a condominium in Rancho Penasquitos last year.

* But as geography goes, there is no "there" in North County. Half of North County's residents don't think the region has a single hub; among those who do, Escondido is identified more than any other city as the capital of North County. Carlsbad ranks second--beating out neighboring Oceanside, a city twice its size.

* Despite their dissatisfactions with North County, residents mostly are happy with their individual communities, confident about the quality of their schools and feel rooted in the area where they live.

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