Orange County's open space decreases with each passing year, reminding those who have been here for even a little while of the need to preserve as much as possible. That's especially true for those living in the canyons like Silverado and Modjeska, who choose these relatively remote areas in the Santa Ana Mountains to get away from the crowd.
On the other side of the mountains is Riverside County, and officials there have floated the possibility of a road running through the Cleveland National Forest, another connection between the two counties. The proposals made so far are poor.
To witness the heat generated by proposals for major new roads, look no further than the battle over the proposed southerly extension of the Foothill toll road. When the toll roads were planned years ago the county had fewer residents, homes and sprawl. Had those roads been proposed today, approval would be in doubt.
Now comes Riverside County's valid concerns about clogged traffic on the two existing roads into Orange County: Ortega Highway and the Riverside Freeway. The better-paying jobs are in Orange County; the more affordable housing is in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Thus motorists face clogged roads into Orange County in the morning and back to Riverside County in the evening.
Orange County officials understandably are skeptical about roads through the national forest. And they are correct to suggest that the priority should be expanding and improving the Riverside Freeway. That will be difficult because Riverside County is suing Caltrans and the operators of four private toll lanes on the freeway. The toll lanes were built on a guarantee of dubious merit that the public freeway would not be expanded and provide increased competition.
Buying the toll roads and making them free again, perhaps for carpools, deserves more examination. Increasing commuter bus trips on the freeway also could help relieve congestion.
The environmental considerations of cutting roads through the national forest are immense. One of the four suggested routes goes through Limestone Canyon Park and Whiting Ranch Park, which were set aside to compensate for development elsewhere that reduced open space. Another route would start near Lake Elsinore and cross O'Neill Regional Park and forest land the federal government said should be left untouched. All four proposed routes run from Interstate 15 in Riverside County; three of the four would connect to the Foothill-Eastern toll roads in Orange County. The fourth would widen and realign Ortega Highway, cross Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park and meet Interstate 5 in San Juan Capistrano.
Orange County should not turn back from sensitivity to the environment and open space, and the important role they play in enhancing the quality of life. Its sensitivity to environmental concerns grew greatly in the 1990s, helped by the realization that there was far less open space than previously and by awareness that destroying habitat threatens the existence of some species of wild-life.
Those concerns led to agreements between developers and environmentalists. The county played a large role in the formulation of a plan in which the Pete Wilson and Clinton administrations agreed to permit development in certain areas in return for leaving untouched large areas where rare plants and animals flourished.
There does seem to be at least acknowledgment of those concerns in Riverside County, where a building industry representative said the road building would not occur until the public is convinced it will not reduce the quality of life. That's a tall order.
Orange County could help reduce the severity of the problem of clogged roads by building more low-income housing, allowing workers to live closer to where they work.
But forecasts of road use indicate the problem will worsen. As that happens, both counties will need to work together to find realistic solutions with the least destruction of what precious little open space is left.