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O.C. Builders Reach Their Final Frontier

County has long been developer-friendly, but that could change with its rural edges at stake.

June 15, 2003|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

After half a century of go-go development, the final build-out of Orange County is underway, with applications in the works by the Irvine Co., Rancho Mission Viejo Co. and major oil companies for massive housing and commercial projects at the county's remnant rural edges.

"We're outta land. We don't have any dirt left," said Michelle Wolkoys, a real estate analyst with the Meyers Group in Costa Mesa.

There are plans for 36,000 to 42,000 additional homes and condominiums on about 54 square miles, according to a Times analysis -- a year's worth of housing for the job-soaked, housing-starved county if it were all built immediately.

But it won't be, many agree, because much of the land that makes up the county's unbuilt borders is not flat, easy-to-bulldoze strawberry fields and orange groves, but mountainous, tree-choked ravines, free-flowing creeks and meandering back roads. It is land that's both tough to build on and beloved by area residents and environmentalists, who are increasingly galvanized to protect what's left.

"They can't leapfrog anymore. Whatever they build is going to be in somebody's backyard," said Ray Chandos, a longtime resident of rural Trabuco Canyon who has sued to stop several projects.

"It's some of the prettiest land you'll ever see," said market analyst Mark Boud of Real Estate Economics, which does marketing and feasibility studies for the Irvine Co. and Rancho Mission Viejo. "I think [landowners have] done an excellent job of ... being environmentally sensitive in planning.... But wherever you look cross-eyed at an oak tree, it's going to anger a lot of people."

Other parcels, like the shuttered El Toro Marine Corps Air Station or former oil production sites in North County, may face lengthy, costly soil cleanup before building can begin.

Yet Orange County is leading the way for the rest of the region, said William Fulton, coauthor of a USC report "Sprawl Hits the Wall." He says that build-out will occur here first, presaging a 200-mile-long swath of urbanization from Tejon Ranch in the north to San Diego.

The county, one of the region's smallest in area, is also one of the most crowded, with 980,000 homes and 3 million residents. That translates into 3,600-plus residents per square mile, according to the 2000 census, compared with 670 people per square mile in San Diego County. Even Los Angeles County has more elbow room, with 2,300 residents per square mile.

Most of the remaining development is proposed by the county's two largest landowners: the Irvine Co., for up to 20,000 homes and at least 17 million square feet of commercial and industrial space in the hills north of Irvine and east of Orange and Anaheim, and Rancho Mission Viejo, for 14,000 homes on 23,000 acres east of San Juan Capistrano.

The two developers, long the architects of growth here because of their vast holdings, note that they have or will set aside large blocks of open space.

Irvine Co. officials say about half of the historic 93,000-acre ranch will be preserved at build-out. Rancho Mission Viejo officials say about half of their 50,000 acres in Orange County has been preserved, and a total of 69% will be preserved at build-out.

But other rural areas could be developed heavily in coming years. From the foothills of Fullerton, Brea and Yorba Linda in the north to San Clemente's ocean bluffs in the south, a dozen additional projects have been approved or on the drawing boards.

Market analysts say every unit of housing is needed, although the majority will add to Orange County's exclusive high-end housing market.

"To create 14,000 homes [on Rancho Mission Viejo land] is a drop in the bucket. It is one year's supply of housing," said Boud, the market consultant.

Others note that the Irvine Co. in particular has created a hugely successful regional jobs engine. Combine that with elected officials allowing developers to build mostly higher priced housing, and the result is hundreds of thousands of commuters from the more affordable Inland Empire stuck in traffic.

Creating large new developments at the county's edges will worsen that, say critics, who contend that affordable "in-fill" housing should be built in vacant lots and sagging strip malls.

"The effects that residents in Orange County will feel most acutely because of these types of far-flung developments are further congestion of roads. What we're doing is creating a road map for traffic," said Bill Corcoran of the Sierra Club's Southern California field office.

"Another effect people will have is further seeping of water pollution into streams and in the surf."

Irvine Co. spokesman Larry Thomas said in-fill redevelopment was key, but so was incremental creation of communities on remaining vacant land. He said as job and housing opportunities increase in the Inland Empire, it would ease regional traffic woes. Both major landholders said they are building balanced, environmentally sensitive communities.

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