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And This Is Just the Beginning : O.C. foothill residents would like to stick around a while. That is, if they can afford it, and if their communities retain their hometown feel.

THE NEW PIONEERS. What's the future for this latest wave of Orange County suburbs? Last in a series.

March 31, 1994|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Newlyweds Leslie and Peter Nevarez are happy to call Rancho Santa Margarita home. Despite long commutes to their jobs, they relish its relative isolation and outdoor activities.

But the Nevarezes figure they'll be moving out of their condominium near the lake in a few years.

Married six months, they have begun thinking about starting a family, and the 1,100-square-foot, two-bedroom condo Peter bought before they were married is just too small for their expansion plans.

They won't be going far, however. Whenever they move up to a three- or four-bedroom house, it will be right there in Rancho Santa Margarita.

"It's a very friendly community," said Leslie Nevarez, 26, marketing manager for a wholesale tire center in Garden Grove. "We feel very comfortable here, and we feel like this would be a safe place for kids to grow up."

The Nevarezes aren't the only southern foothill residents who look to the future and see themselves still living in the same communities they now call home.

Two in three foothill residents expect to be living there in five years, according to The Times Orange County Poll. Reflecting residents' beliefs that the area is a good place to raise families, seven in 10 parents plan to stay.

Alison Rubalcava, 27, is not sure where she and her family will be living when husband Steve, a Marine Corps captain, gets out of the service in September.

Not that they don't like living in a "terrific neighborhood" in Portola Hills, where they moved three years ago. But the mother of a 3-year-old son said their two-bedroom townhouse is too small and, because of the cost of moving into a larger house, they're thinking of moving to Central or Northern California.

"I'd love to stay in this area if we could manage to afford to buy a real house," she said, "but in this economy it's such a faraway kind of dream."

Jobs, career and the economy were at the top of the reasons poll respondents cited in figuring they will be living elsewhere in five years. They were followed by housing costs and the cost of living, and growth and congestion.

"A lot of the reasons for leaving reflect a concern about the changes the whole region is going through at this point," said Times pollster Mark Baldassare. "People who move to these remote communities realize that they've purchased a house and are settling in a neighborhood, but their livelihood still depends on the health of the entire region: A nice house in a nice neighborhood in a region whose economy is weak, it's not going to work."

Although the poll shows that the vast majority of residents in Rancho Santa Margarita, Coto de Caza, Dove Canyon, Portola Hills, Foothill Ranch and Robinson Ranch are just as happy with their communities as the Nevarezes, many express concern over whether their area will remain the same.

As one poll respondent put it: The biggest problem facing his community is "keeping it this way."

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Growth and traffic are the top two concerns of foothill community residents--a throwback, observes Baldassare, to the county in the 1980s, when Orange County Annual Surveys consistently found four in 10 residents countywide mentioning growth and traffic as the top issues facing the county. Only 18% in the 1993 annual survey mentioned growth and traffic; seven in 10 now name crime, jobs and immigration as the biggest problems in Orange County.

Although she plans to stay in Rancho Santa Margarita, Leslie Nevarez said she's "not really happy" about the Foothill tollway "and the shopping centers and the auto mall they're considering putting out here. It's going to turn into looking like any other community in Southern California eventually."

Such fears galvanized many Rancho Santa Margarita residents in January when plans were announced for an 11-dealer auto mall to be built on 36 acres in the community's 450-acre business park.

Santa Margarita Co. officials project that the auto mall--to be built with an early California look--will generate $1.7 million in annual sales tax revenue and create 520 jobs at the auto center, with an additional 925 new jobs in related businesses.

But about 2,000 residents have signed a petition protesting the auto mall, angrily saying it will bring increased traffic and noise and will ruin their panoramic views and reduce property values.

Although growth is considered a big problem in the new foothill communities, only 38% feel current local measures are not strict enough. Countywide, 45% think growth controls in their areas are not strict enough.

"For some people," said Baldassare, "they're looking over their shoulders at what happened in the rest of Orange County and they're wondering if these new communities will follow the same trend: Once-remote areas will become developed and overcrowded. For that group of people it seems their next step is out of state."

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Foothill Ranch resident Rene Modino, for example, thinks he and his family may be calling Arizona home within the next five years.

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