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North County Growth Means Problems, Challenges : Transformation: How the region handles the demands and problems of growth in the next decade will have a major impact on the quality of life.


Once, in this very generation, North County was a vast openness surrounding remote communities so placid and bypassed that they seemed almost like private little universes.

Slowly at first, people began coming here to raise kids and animals in peace, to forsake the urban rush and congestion for a place where they could still hear sparrows, see infinite starry nights and afford homes with pastoral or ocean views.

Lucy Gross left San Diego in 1961 for a hamlet of roughly 2,000 people called San Marcos.

"We moved up so our kids could have horses and dogs. You never heard an airplane in San Marcos," Gross said.

But the San Marcos she first knew reached a population of 33,835 last year, a 93.6% increase just since 1980. It was a clear sign, duplicated to varying degrees throughout North County, that paradise had been discovered.

Now, in the 1990s, the area once regarded as San Diego's drowsy back country will push onward with its fast evolution into a dynamic bastion of housing, jobs, transportation and recreation. Here's what regional planners, school officials and private consulting firms see happening in North County:

* North County's 1989 population of 810,414 is expected to reach 1,046,901 by 2000, a 29.2% increase in little more than a decade.

* The number of kindergarten through high school students in North County will rise from its last official enrollment of 117,611 in 1988 to 196,089 in 2000, a jump of 67%. That's far above the 46% increase expected in South County and the 40% hike seen for metropolitan San Diego.

* North County is expected to dominate countywide housing development during 1991-92 as 7,418 approved homes and attached units go on the market. An additional 17,240 dwellings are planned for North County between 1993-95.

* Forecasters predict an additional 550,000 jobs countywide by 2010, with the biggest share, 182,000 jobs, going to the North City area. The second largest share, 138,000, is destined for North County.

* Vehicle trips on Interstate 5 north of the intersection of Interstate 805 are expected to increase from the current 200,000 average daily trips to 380,000 trips in 2010. Yearly ridership on the Express Transit Route, serving the California 78 corridor between Oceanside and Escondido, went from 233,000 riders in 1985 to 486,000 in 1988. By 2000, there will be 1.8 million round trips a year.

In short, the next decade will see North County's transformation from San Diego suburb to largely self-sufficient subregion, with its own new state university, cultural arts centers, mass transit systems, redeveloped downtowns, commercial centers and parks.

People will be able to enjoy plays and concerts, hold jobs and find fashionable shopping in their own communities. But at the same time they enjoy the conveniences of urbanization, they will face the plagues: classroom overcrowding, as school districts try to cope by switching to year-round schedules and launching construction; and continuing traffic congestion, despite a freeway expansion and two new commuter rail lines.

"What's fueling the growth is the phenomenon we call 'suburbs of suburbs,' " said Mark Baldassare, an author and a professor of social ecology at the University of California, Irvine.

Baldassare sees North County as a place with many small economic centers that have as much in common with southern Orange County as with San Diego. "What it is destined to become is another major high-tech center, in terms of employment base and an increasingly industrialized suburb," he said.

In the long term, Baldassare predicts North County will evolve "into a self-contained region, ultimately becoming another Santa Clara County or Orange County."

As for its relationship with San Diego, Baldassare believes that eventually, North County will more forcefully seek its share of county resources and "become isolated from the issues and problems of the big city."

Whatever North County's future holds for commerce and industry, it will remain fundamentally residential in nature.

"North County has successfully assumed the mantle of a high-quality neighborhood environment," said Ken Lounsbery, former city manager of Escondido and now vice president of the Lusardi Construction Co., based in San Marcos.

He hastened to add, though, that "if growth were to become unchecked, we could ruin our pockets of open space, the canyons, the slopes, the wetlands, the beaches. It would be shameful."

Another concern is that rising housing prices in North County--which now meet and often exceed those elsewhere in the county--will keep many aspiring residents out.

"If the price to live here continues to escalate, it's going to become the center for the rich and famous, and the rest of us will have to find somewhere else to go," Lounsbery said.

That North County's coming of age will not be without strain and struggle is obvious to Gross.

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