As Orange County's population increases and housing prices soar ever upward, developers are building on more and more hillsides in order to meet the huge demand for housing.
Many residents are justifiably concerned about hillside development. They want to protect the value of existing properties and preserve many remaining hillsides as open space and visual relief in our increasingly congested region. But the public also recognizes that Orange County is growing rapidly, and that local residents--now and in the future--deserve a full range of housing choices.
How can Orange County residents, city planners, public officials and developers formulate hillside-growth plans that satisfy all these valid concerns? With hillside projects in several communities now in various stages of planning, new attention is being focused on the challenge of finding the best way to put homes on hillsides without suffering the visual consequences that plagued past projects.
To begin with, hillside development is not inherently bad. Some of California's most charming places are characterized by hillside development, such as Laguna Beach, Beachwood Canyon beneath the HOLLYWOOD sign, and Russian Hill and Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. Beyond California, consider the Italian and Greek hill towns, which are some of the most beautiful spots in the world.
What qualities make these high-density hillside communities so appealing? More to the point, how can these communities provide lessons for hillside development in today's Orange County?
First of all, many of these successful hillside communities have developed in a sporadic manner over several decades, if not several centuries. Houses were usually built one by one. Each building respected the existing site, and so the combined visual effect did not significantly alter the overall hillside.
Also, houses were built in close proximity to each other to minimize the cost of roads and connections to existing utilities. Therefore, development occurred in random clusters, leaving difficult-to-access areas as open space. The result is a pleasing combination of open space intermingled with developed areas.
Another factor is that roads were designed to adapt to the hillside terrain, not the other way around. The effect of these narrow, twisting roads was minimal impact to the natural hillside landforms. Today's road standards are usually over-designed, making it difficult to follow the natural terrain.
And landscaping is essential for a hillside community. Some of the most attractive locales have improved over time due to the growth of plantings that soften the appearance of buildings and help blend development into the environment. In many respects, a hillside community is like good wine: it improves with age.
When these communities are viewed from a distance, homes appear to be scattered in a random fashion, rather than arranged in rows. Street patterns are nearly indistinguishable. Development follows the overall hillside landform and blends with surrounding open spaces. The hillsides are preserved--yet local residents' housing needs are satisfied as well.
Of course, new Orange County hillside communities will not be developed house by house over several decades, and excessively narrow and twisting roads are often impractical. Yet, new communities can still offer the same aesthetic and environmental pleasures as the older ones, if we create intelligent community planning and housing design standards that are specifically tailored to the unique hillside requirements.
Before Orange County residents and public officials can devise improved planning standards for hillside communities, however, we must discard the unreasonable zoning dictum--"the higher the hillside, the lower the density"--and then review past disappointments that are the obvious focus of today's hillside development opponents.
What went wrong in the planning and subsequent construction of these Orange County communities that are so easily criticized?
The real estate developers and their planners disregarded the natural hillside landforms by using flatland building techniques. In their eagerness to maximize flat, buildable land, developers bulldozed hillsides into large, flat pads terraced into the land in long, straight lines. As a result, the houses and roads march up and down the hillsides, creating a regimented and unnatural appearance.
But instead of citing flawed designs as reasons to prevent future hillside development, let's use the lessons of Laguna Beach and Santa Barbara to encourage sensitive growth in Orange County.