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NORTH COUNTY COVER STORY : Growth Sends Some Packing

May 24, 1990|LINDA C. PUIG

Tracy Richmond was reading "The Little House" to his 8-year-old daughter one recent evening when it hit him.

The 1942 classic by Virginia Lee Burton tells the story of a country cottage that gets swallowed up by urban construction, until the house rejects the rush of city life and finds happiness again in the country.

"All of a sudden I realized, it's really the story of North County," said Richmond, a Solana Beach attorney who has lived in the region all his life.

Indeed it is.

As more North County flower fields and pastoral views succumb to the march of progress, more and more longtime residents are leaving the county. And movers, real estate agents and community leaders all predict that the exodus from North County will probably accelerate during the 1990s.

They leave because the clean air and open-country feel, the slower-paced simpler life for which they moved to North County, have all but disappeared. Crowded urbanism has taken their place. Cookie-cutter housing developments, smog, crime and, above all, traffic have tarnished the vision.

"We just saw this dream eroding like the bluffs of Solana Beach," said Gail Paparian.

A decade ago, Paparian and her husband, Bill, moved to Solana Beach to escape the woes of daily living and commuting in Los Angeles. The couple helped found the city's successful incorporation effort. For a while, they seemed almost synonymous with Solana Beach. They shocked everyone when they moved last summer to Charleston, S. C.

"We were disheartened, disenfranchised, disgusted, disenchanted--all the 'dis' words," said Paparian, 46, a free-lance writer and retired television director. "We got into a situation where we were facing the same kinds of things (as in Los Angeles), like gridlock--unbelievable traffic."

The Paparians are part of a trend that Todd McKittrick, North County regional sales manager for United Van Lines, started noticing about three years ago. Working for one of the largest moving companies in the county, McKittrick began to hear a common chorus of complaints among those leaving North County.

"They'd say, 'Come over and look out this window. Eighteen years ago, you could look out this window and see nothing but sagebrush.' And you'd look out the window and see nothing but houses," McKittrick said.

Joe Franich, a real estate agent with Century 21 Bernet in Escondido, has heard the same story.

"People will make comments like, 'I originally moved here for the open spaces, and they're disappearing,' " he said. "There's just too many people, the prices are too high, and they feel their money can get better value elsewhere."

"Elsewhere" tends to be Northern California, Arizona, Oregon and Washington, the destinations of choice, according to moving companies. Others leaving North County generally go where there's family, whether it be Michigan or Arkansas or Florida.

There's no question the influx of people to North County--both coastal and inland--continues by far to outweigh the outflow. More than 810,000 people live in North County today, twice as many as a decade ago. The newcomers grumble a lot less than old-timers, too, according to a recent Los Angeles Times poll.

The March poll, which surveyed 1,134 North County residents, nevertheless found that 1 in 4 had considered moving out of the county. Seventeen percent expressed dissatisfaction with their communities; 44% believed the quality of life in North County had worsened during the past decade, and 41% listed traffic as the region's biggest concern.

Ask Frances and George Stutsky, and they'll tell you about the traffic. Last month, the couple left their longtime Oceanside home to live in Camarillo in Ventura County, a move prompted in part by frustratingly heavy traffic. Like the Paparians, they had moved here from Los Angeles in the 1970s because of that city's gridlocked highways.

"We said let's retire early, tighten our belts and move to (North County), where it's peaceful and quiet and country," said Frances, 65. "We used to laugh at the traffic here, and look at it now."

When the Stutskys first began spending weekends in North County in 1975, Interstate 5 in Oceanside saw fewer than 70,000 cars a day during the week, according to traffic counts compiled by the San Diego Assn. of Governments. In 1988, the latest year for which figures were available, 135,700 cars a day traveled the same stretch. The number of cars driving California 78 in the Oceanside area more than tripled from 1975 to 1988.

After retirement, Bill and LaVonne Smith managed to avoid most of the congestion by scheduling all their driving during non-peak hours. But they couldn't do anything to keep the noise of nearby I-5 from invading their bluff-top Solana Beach home of 17 years. So three years ago they moved to Idyllwild in Riverside County, an area Bill calls "the best-kept secret of Southern California."

"It's so quiet up here that I can go out on the deck and hear the trees growing," he said.

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