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Growth Demands Are Shaking a Sleepy San Clemente Awake

Development: Projects real and proposed pinch a surfer's paradise that was once Nixon's retreat.


Every chance he gets, Drew Brophy surfs some of the world's most celebrated breaks off San Clemente's coast, catching the same waves that once washed over the black wingtips Richard Nixon wore strolling along the beach during his exile at the Western White House.

Along the secluded shoreline, Brophy feels as far removed from the bustle of life as Nixon did escaping here from Washington after the Watergate scandal.

At the southern tip of Orange County, in the shadow of the San Onofre nuclear power plant, San Clemente has long been a reminder of what California coastal towns used to be, with uncrowded beaches and an old-fashioned downtown free of the big-box retailers that dot the rest of suburbia.

But time is finally catching up with San Clemente.

Up in the backcountry, huge housing developments are rising. Transportation officials want to carve a toll road through the city's eastern end and build a second set of railroad tracks along the coast. And at San Onofre, the federal government wants the facility to hold buried radioactive waste, further unnerving residents who learned last week they would receive special pills in case terrorism or some other disaster causes a radiation leak.

Around downtown, the small bungalows that until a few years ago were considered among the last beach-side bargains in Southern California are being torn down at a rapid rate and replaced with grander homes.

Traffic is worse than ever, many longtime residents say, and they fear driving will only get worse over the next two decades, when San Clemente's population is expected to climb 30%.

Brophy, 31, doesn't like it one bit. An artist by trade, he moved to San Clemente in 1993, in search of the place he lost when his hometown of Myrtle Beach, S.C., "went from a sweet little beach town to a Las Vegas strip."

Now, as he scans his adopted home, "it seems like every week there's something new. It's endless.

"It's kind of scary to think this little treasure isn't going to last. This is one of the last places in California where it's still the way it's always been," Brophy said.

San Clemente sprouted up on the former Ranchos los Desechos ("Leftover Land"), which was abandoned because it was too steep and overgrown to graze cattle or sheep.

Ole Hanson, a land speculator and the city's father, vowed to create a "Spanish village" when he pitched a white canopy tent along Old Coast Highway in 1927 and sold the first plots.

"I vision a place where people can live together more pleasantly than any other place in America," Hanson wrote to a friend. "This will be a place where a man can breathe!"

Hanson's white stucco homes now blend with the beach bungalows, townhomes and apartments that are tucked along narrow streets and alleys. Many of the seaside neighborhoods are within walking distance of Avenida del Mar, the main road leading to the pier.


Local Gems

San Onofre State Beach is one of the city's most treasured gems. Steep sandstone bluffs stretch for miles. Picnickers grill hot dogs under thatched-roof huts. Anglers cast their lines from rocky shores. Out in the distance, surfers ride breaks such as Cotton's Point, Churches and Trestles.

Nixon, often wearing suit and tie, walked these same sandy shores when he wasn't entertaining foreign dignitaries, signing landmark accords or dodging demonstrators at Casa Pacifica ("House of Peace"), the bluff-top estate that became his retreat from 1969 to 1980.

For all the unwanted publicity he brought to San Clemente during his presidency and the self-imposed exile that followed his resignation, one of his other legacies was converting Camp Pendleton's beaches into a state park and preserving them as a surfing haven.

Even as development exploded in south Orange County in the 1970s and 1980s, San Clemente remained an island of relative calm. Initially, it was less desirable for development because of its distance from large job centers. The city was further isolated because only two major highways ran through it, Interstate 5 and the Coast Highway.

Residents liked it that way. Voters passed a slow-growth measure in 1988 that permitted only 500 new homes a year until 2006.


Then Came Toll Road

But over the past decade, urban sprawl has reached San Clemente's doorstep. In the mid-1990s, the San Joaquin Hills toll road opened to the north, providing more access to San Clemente. Office towers and business parks sprouted up in Irvine and Costa Mesa, creating jobs closer to town.

"When the [tollway] opened up, it became an entirely new picture," said John Martin of Martin & Associates, an urban planning firm in Newport Beach. "It was a huge transformation in commuting patterns."

Several upscale housing developments that are in the works on the northeastern edge of the city will add more than 5,000 homes. Such growth is permitted because some of the developments lie just outside city limits, in county territory.

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