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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

Future Is in Their Hands

June 09, 2002

Irvine has approved plans to plant 12,350 houses near the former El Toro military base, gradually swelling the city's population by a third. Energy companies that own land straddling the border between Orange and Los Angeles counties near Brea want to build more than 3,500 homes on land that's now home to mountain lions, bobcats and coyotes.

Huge developments are part and parcel of Orange County, but the latest generation of housing developments is sure to stoke Orange County's love-hate relationship with suburban sprawl. The UC Irvine Annual Survey will be released in the fall, and it's a solid bet that growth and development, high housing costs and traffic congestion will again top the list of local concerns. With more of the county built out, planners must rise to the challenge of fitting new development into the remaining buildable land.

Those who've already got their castle and want to pull up the drawbridge will be lobbying city and county planners to just say no to further development. Those arguments don't hold water, though, because housing is in short supply. The two projects represent significant pieces of the county's remaining land-use jigsaw puzzle. The so-called Northern Sphere near the former base would largely complete the process of building Irvine; the developments proposed in and around Brea would fill in empty space separating Orange and Los Angeles counties.

The proposals must be tackled on a regional basis. Planners in Diamond Bar already have sent a letter to Orange County planners to remind them that what happens to the unincorporated tract near Brea will have a ripple effect on residents in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

It's not just the additional traffic on highways and the added demand for public services. Developers and planners also must be mindful of the 31-mile wildlife corridor stretching from the Cleveland National Forest to the Whittier Narrows region. They also must provide services for future residents who will need parks and open space in an area where undeveloped land will only grow more scarce. A plan floated by Nuevo Energy Co., which wants to build 914 homes on land near Brea, has shocked environmentalists. The company, which boasts that it has developed a "conservation-minded plan," proposed open space including nearly 300 oil wells that will continue to pump for decades.

Finally, developers and planners must find creative ways to ensure that new developments address the crucial issue of affordable housing. The county should take its lead from Fannie Mae, which has earmarked $2 trillion nationwide to make housing more accessible for immigrants and other underserved households where home ownership has been difficult to achieve. Local planners owe it to future generations to keep the dream of home ownership alive.

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