Newport Beach, Calif. — After years of putting up with ossified freeways and dirty air, Russ Burkett says, his family couldn't take it anymore. They had to move. So they sold their stucco house in Los Angeles, packed up a consulting business, and headed for a coastal community in south Orange County. Only that didn't turn out to be a white-picket-fence existence, either.
``As soon as we stepped into the county, it was like it exploded,'' he says over a pancake breakfast here. ``We had moved into a county under siege with development.''
Today Russ Burkett is in the forefront of a controversial drive to slow growth in Orange County. He is part of a rebellion emerging throughout much of southern California which is increasingly affecting the political and economic structure of the entire region.
Ever since World War II, southern California has been one of the fastest growing areas in the country. Now it is seeing some of the nation's most stringent controls on development being pushed at the ballot box and in city council meetings.
In a collective cry of ``enough is enough,'' citizens' groups and others are trying to slow the developer's spade in ways that are stirring intense debate:
Activists in San Diego are working to get an initiative on the ballot next spring that would tie housing construction to standards of air quality, traffic flow, and other ``quality of life'' measures. The drive was launched in mid-October after slow-growth advocates became concerned that a housing cap adopted by the city was being riddled with loopholes. The cap itself, enacted last summer, established San Diego as the largest city in the country to set statutory limits on growth.
Orange County, bastion of Ronald Reagan Republicanism and can-do capitalism, is several months into an initiative drive that proposes even more far-reaching controls. It would link major development countywide to improvements in traffic flow, police, fire, and services.
Los Angeles, the enfant terrible of urban growth, continues to see development emerge as a dominant political issue. A steady stream of growth-control measures has come before the City Council since voters approved a major limit on high-rise construction in residential neighborhoods last year.
Grass-roots groups are active throughout much of the city on quality-of-life issues. Last fall Proposition U, a referendum measure limiting the size of new commercial buildings in the city, was approved overwhelmingly. In June, growth-control candidate Ruth Galanter unseated veteran City Council president Pat Russell. Now grass-roots forces are girding for the 1988 mayoral race, when Zev Yaroslavsky, a slow-growth leader on the City Council, is expected to challenge Mayor Tom Bradley, a moderate on development issues.
``I think there is prospectively a major shift under way here,'' says Lowdon Wingo, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Southern California (USC). And Derek Shearer, a professor of public policy at Occidental College, notes: ``For the first time in L.A.'s postwar history, there is a kind of neighborhood revolt and questioning of growth for growth's sake.''
Referring to the movement regionwide, Richard Peiser, a professor of urban and regional planning at USC, says: ``It is very deep-seated and very widespread.''
Underlying the trend is the continued boom in the region's population. Sun-dappled skies, a shirt-sleeve life style, and robust economy have kept turnstiles spinning here for more than a decade. At the same time, however, governments have found it hard to provide services - particularly since passage of Proposition 13, California's tax-slashing initiative, in 1978.
Traffic has been the trigger for much of the disenchantment. In Los Angeles, for instance, hour-and-a-half commutes are not uncommon, and the inchworm pace is not likely to improve: By the year 2000, county transportation officials estimate, the average rush-hour speed on the Ventura Freeway, the world's busiest, will be 7 m.p.h. Orange County is becoming similarly calcified, with 15,000 new vehicles registered in the county each month.
Yet analysts say the disenchantment goes beyond freeways to overburdened schools, sewage systems, prisons, and recreational facilities. In the absence, or inability, of governments to respond, citizens' groups are turning to the ballot box or council meetings. This trend was further underscored in local elections last week, when several communities in southern California voted to incorporate. Their reason: to give residents more control over local issues, particularly growth.
``The more the shoe pinches, the more people are going to be looking for an easy way out,'' Dr. Wingo says.
How politically powerful the movements are varies from place to place. Some critics contend they are the work of a few environmental activists or well-heeled newcomers who want to ``raise the drawbridge'' once they have arrived. But planners say that in most cases the concern about growth, even if not reflected in support for a specific initiative, goes far beyond that.
In San Diego, Bob Waste, an urban affairs specialist at San Diego State University (SDSU), notes that much of the anti-development fervor there is emanating from the middle-class and upper-middle-class suburbs north of the city. But even the most conservative San Diego politicians, he says, now include the word ``managed growth'' in their lexicon.
In Orange County, the group trying to get a referendum on next June's ballot spans the political spectrum. Its leaders include Larry Agran, the liberal mayor of Irvine, and Tom Rogers, a rancher-developer who is a self-described ``right wing'' Republican. Although developers maintain the drive is the work of a few activists, they admit that traffic is an emotional enough issue that the referendum may pass if it makes it to the ballot.
Some land-use specialists, though, say slow-growth referendums often impose unworkable requirements that take planning out of planners hands.
And there is concern about Balkanization: If one community crimps growth, it only aggravates the problem for the town next door. Some note that building caps or constraints can drive up existing housing prices and rents, eventually pinching the low income.
``The old theory that you better have a two-income family? In some cases you better have a two good income family,'' says Roger Caves, a city planning expert at SDSU.
Critics complain that the initiatives don't solve the problems. In Orange County, developers say the need is to channel development and use the money to bring transportation and other services up to par.