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A Truly Lasting Vision

South County Development Bears Riley's Stamp


SANTA ANA — From San Juan Capistrano to Sacramento, Thomas F. Riley was remembered Thursday as a dedicated, scrupulously honest power broker instrumental in bringing new homes, businesses and people to the wide expanses of south Orange County, a growth that transformed the beaches, mountains and fields of the region forever.

In a 20-year career that spanned Orange County's transformation from orange groves to suburbs, Riley earned a reputation for integrity and dedication to public service, marred only by the county bankruptcy in his final month in office.

"I will always remember the courage he demonstrated, even during the bankruptcy. He stood tall during that time," said state Secretary of Education Marian Bergeson, who succeeded Riley as supervisor.

"He was loyal to all the right things. Never in his life would he do anything that was dishonest or hurt people. The irony is that his career ended in the way it did, with bankruptcy."

Appointed in 1974, when much of south Orange County was undeveloped, Riley presided over the final chapter of the suburbanization of the county, putting an unprecedented personal stamp on the look of his district.

"He made a huge difference in the life of this county. The vision he had pretty much shaped what has happened in southern Orange County ever since," said Stan Oftelie, chief executive officer of the Orange County Business Council.

Riley secured state funding and county tax increases for massive freeway construction throughout the county, got the expansion of John Wayne Airport off the ground and pushed for the toll roads that now stretch across South County. His influence led to the construction of shopping centers and parks to serve the millions of people fleeing urban life for the suburban dream Riley helped promote.

That legacy drew him friends in high places among Orange County's business and development elite, and animosity from development foes.

"What he was proudest of was the development of Orange County during his tenure, and he felt it was proper," said Gary Granville, the county's clerk-recorder. Granville met Riley in 1974 as a reporter for the Orange Coast Daily Pilot and was close to him in his later years, taking him out for lunch nearly every week.

Donald Bren, chairman of the Irvine Co., called the legacy of the former Marine Corps brigadier general "monumental."

"He had the courage of his convictions, unquestioned integrity, a wonderful passion for public service and remarkable energy," Bren said. "In ways big and small, 'the General' has touched us and left this a better place."

Others see Riley's legacy differently. That he arranged for hundreds of thousands of acres of open space to be preserved in the county wasn't enough, they say, to blunt the effects of sprawling development: traffic, smog, razed hillsides, obliterated ocean views.

"He thought what he'd done was a good thing, that high-density development was good for the county," said longtime adversary Tom Rogers, who lives just north of San Juan Capistrano. "He epitomized the Marine Corps. They've never heard of a perimeter, they just bull right through. He thought of us as the enemy, and he gave the developers everything they wanted."

Orange County Democratic Party chair Jeanne Costales said Riley should be held responsible for "overcrowded, overdeveloped" south Orange County.

"You have houses too close together. You have landslides," Costales said. "It's development without developing the adequate infrastructure to support it. Those communities are still fighting his legacy."

Riley was no stranger to controversy and was loath to walk away from a fight.

Long before the bankruptcy that ended his career on a negative note, Riley drew criticism for vigorously pushing to enlarge John Wayne Airport, which increased noise and traffic in his own neighborhood overlooking Upper Newport Bay.

"He wasn't a guy you could upset very easily. . . . During the airport controversy, one of his neighbors put up a huge sign, 'Recall Riley,' " Oftelie said.

But even among his fiercest foes, Riley earned a reputation as dedicated to his job, attending even the most minor ribbon cuttings in his 5th District, and keeping his door open to constituents at practically any time of day or night.

"Younger staffers had problems keeping up with him," said Supervisor William G. Steiner, who served with Riley on the board for a year and a half. "As a former Marine, he was up at the crack of dawn and was very dedicated to public service."

Friend and foe alike remember Riley as scrupulously honest.

"Whenever you talked to him, and he gave you his word, you could go to the bank on it," said Supervisor Jim Silva.

"I was on the City Council in Huntington Beach. We had an oil spill [in 1990], and I remember 'the General' coming down to Huntington Beach, walking out there in the sand and discussing what it would take to clean up that oil spill. He pledged his full support, and it happened. It got cleaned up."

Political consultant Bob Nelson was Riley's aide for his first year in office, and later ran his campaigns. He said the leatherneck may have appeared the crusty general but in private was "the most gentle human being I've ever known."

He recalled that Riley's first public policy crisis came only months after he was appointed to the board. Supervisors Lawrence Schmidt and Ralph B. Clark wanted to ban any county money for abortions.

"Tom Riley was the most devout Catholic I ever met, and this was really his first crisis of conscience as a public official," Nelson said. "He agreed with the doctrine of the church, but he had a real hard time denying a woman's ability to exercise her own conscience. He decided he wouldn't be the third vote."

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