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California and the West

Open Spaces Disappearing Acre by Acre

Orange County: Once a stretch of farms and wilderness, the region has been developed with roads and houses, much to the dismay of many residents.


ALISO VIEJO — Gently dabbing a small canvas with his painter's brush, artist Michael Obermeyer stood on the side of Oso Parkway one day last spring, peering below at the rolling glen, lush and fragrant from that season's rains.

Though in no hurry to finish his painting, there was clearly an urgency to his work: "I have to paint it while I can; it probably won't be here much longer," he said.

Today, barely two seasons later, the work trucks and cranes have moved into Obermeyer's blissful canyon paradise that at one time stretched, unspoiled, from Rancho Santa Margarita to San Juan Capistrano. Now, it's a part of plans for a toll road.

Once, open spaces and wide stretches of farmland were part of Orange County's image. But that image is slowly fading. Acre by acre, open space is disappearing--in some cases, such as farmland, more drastically than anywhere in Southern California.

As of 1996, only 38% of Orange County was undeveloped, compared with an average of 61% in other Southern California counties, according to the Southern California Assn. of Governments. Three-fourths of Ventura County is undeveloped and half of Los Angeles County is open, although much of it is in the mountains and high desert.

But there is still room for growth in Orange County. Although more than 100,000 acres are off-limits to development--either public wilderness or parkland set aside by developers--that land accounts for only 20% of the county.

A recent Times Orange County poll found that many residents want more undeveloped land protected: Two-thirds believe there will not be enough open space to meet their needs 10 years from now, with the number jumping to 73% in the south County, where most of the building is planned or under way.

"People adamantly oppose giving up anything in the areas of environment and open space for the sake of the economy," said Cheryl Katz of Baldassare Associates, which conducted the poll for The Times.

To rescue and protect scarce open spaces, partnerships and plans have been hatched and developers and conservation groups have worked together to set aside natural habitats.

The Irvine Co., the county's largest private landowner and one of the nation's largest developers of planned communities, continues to develop the Irvine Ranch. But it has committed more than 35,000 acres to open spaces. "Roughly a third of our land is going to end up as some kind of open space, either as park, habitat or nature conservancy, by the time the ranch is built out," said Irvine Co. spokesman Larry Thomas.

Nearly 18,000 acres of Orange County open space were converted to urban uses between 1984 and 1996--an area the size of Santa Ana at a rate of about four acres a day, according to the state Department of Conservation's farmland mapping and monitoring program.

Now, mammoth new communities--as many as 8,100 homes in a single development called Ladera--are about to go up. And new highways could open more land to construction.

"The pitiful fact of life is that most of the open space we see here in Orange County is already spoken for and there's nothing we can do about it," said Thomas Rogers, a San Juan Capistrano rancher and onetime leader of the county's "sensible growth" movement.

As recently as 1996, state maps showed splotches of rich, dark green marking the last plots of Orange County's bounty of prime farmland, which has the best combination of physical and chemical features. Today, much of the prime farmland is sprouting its final crop: houses and apartments.

The depletion can take its toll in many ways.

The mere existence of nearby open spaces, hosting flocks of migrating birds and fields of chirping crickets, is mentally soothing to residents and commuters alike. They feel they live in a place where there's still room to stretch.

Once it vanishes, so does the mental escape hatch.

For artist Obermeyer, who has painted many Orange County landscapes before they faded into the drone of suburbia, the construction of the last stretch of the Foothill South toll road through the open land south of Oso Parkway would mean a farewell of sorts, if it takes place. The artist said he probably won't be back to paint the altered landscape.

"We'd all like to see an end to the overdevelopment," he said.

There is a limit to growth. Even if home builders and shopping center magnates could consume every last acre of privately available land in Orange County, thousands of acres of land that are publicly owned or privately held but dedicated to conservation would remain.

The 424,000-acre Cleveland National Forest includes 54,577 acres along the eastern border of Orange County. The state maintains beaches, natural areas and the 2,800-acre Crystal Cove State Park. The county owns more than 33,000 acres in parks, trails and wilderness areas.

The owners of Talega, a 5,000-home community outside San Clemente, have offered to cede a third of their land--about 1,100 acres--to open space. Ladera's developers are offering 1,600 of open space and habitat.

Ardent conservationists said thousands of preservable acres are yet at stake.

"In Orange County, the south part of the county is the last frontier for us," said Pete DeSimone of the Audubon Society, referring to about 30,000 acres that are privately owned but still unplanned. "There is national park potential here, and it's such an asset to the county."

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