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NATIONAL PERSPECTIVES; Environmentalists Can Call This Home

Published: August 1, 2004, Sunday

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SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif. -- THERE is perhaps no better way to witness the dichotomy of modern Orange County, Calif., than to stop the car and pull over on the Antonio Parkway, along the county's southeastern edge.

To look east is to see the landscape that greeted the first settlers to this area more than 100 years ago. Hillsides covered with chaparral and oak stretch as far as you can see, toward Caspers Wilderness Park and the distant Santiago Peak.

To the west, a stunningly different picture is being painted by those who have settled more recently. Hillsides that once held roaming cattle, barley fields and mountain lions have been leveled and blanketed with scores of densely packed houses. Massive grading machines haul hundreds of thousands of tons of dirt in preparation for the construction of the final stages of the 4,000-acre development in unincorporated Orange County called Ladera Ranch, which will eventually have 8,100 houses.

Though the altered landscape might make its claim seem a contradiction, the developer, Rancho Mission Viejo, which is based in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., is holding up Ladera Ranch's 1,262-house development, Terramor, as the largest ''green oriented'' planned community in the nation.

Like other so-called smart developments, including the rest of Ladera Ranch, Terramor has a bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly network of neighborhoods. But it also has much more: solar power, recycled building materials, artificial wetlands and reed-filled streams for runoff filtration, energy conservation measures more stringent than those mandated by the state, and even a $1,000 voucher for the purchase of an electric GEM car.

Some critics, however, complain that in the process of building a ''green'' development, the company has removed nearly all of the original land cover through its grading and terracing.

The development is designed to appeal to people who desire a low-key community where the car is not king, according to Paul Johnson, senior vice president of community development at Ranch Mission Viejo.

Environmentally conscious buyers can order homes along Aura Lane, Ethereal Street or Thoreau Street with 1.3- or 2.6-kilowatt solar electric systems. Inside, the houses have flooring made of recycled tires, cork or bamboo. They also have low-fume paint and insulation, and energy-efficient appliances. Outside, plants and trees with minimal water requirements are tended by drip irrigation.

Along the development's central areas, the typical main street has been replaced with a network of pathways, courtyards and green space.

These were some of the features that persuaded Michelle and Patrick Peters to buy a four-bedroom home in Terramor's Walden Park neighborhood.

They plan to move in later this month with their three children. The family, which is moving from a different neighborhood in Ladera Ranch, bought their first Ladera house for $279,000 three years ago and recently sold it for $500,000. Their new house costs $623,000.

Ms. Peters, 39, considers herself and her husband ''very environmentally conscious.'' She said that her husband, an Internet fleet sales manager for Toyota, was particularly thrilled with solar electricity in their new house, while she was happy with a neighborhood designed to make cars optional. She has just bought a GEM car, an electric vehicle allowed only where the speed limit does not exceed 35 miles per hour. Her husband, she said, is about to take delivery on a Toyota Prius, powered by gasoline and electricity.

Despite her eco-consciousness, Ms. Peters said that she had met a few of her future neighbors, and did not find them to be as environmentally aware as she and even her three children, ages 4, 7 and 8, were. Citing Orange County's notoriously scarce housing market, she said: ''People are happy just to get a house. I don't think a lot of them look at it the way we do. But a lot are still in the process of learning about what's really going on here.''

Dianne Hemme, another buyer in Terramor, said that while she wouldn't label herself an environmentalist, she was excited about the opportunity to work at home -- many houses have home offices with separate entries -- and the chance to just jump outside anytime and ride her bike. For her, the community seems like a responsible way to deal with development. ''At least you're moderating the effects a little bit,'' she said.

To Karl Warkomski, a city council representative and environmental planner for the nearby city of Aliso Viejo, Rancho Mission has done some impressive work with Terramor, but it could have used more recycled building materials, and could have tried harder to reduce the impact on the land.

''You'd think that they would leave some of the plant life and hill contouring so that it showed a more natural state, but they completely eradicated that into a moonscape design,'' he said.

Rancho Mission Viejo's Mr. Johnson said that the earth moving and terracing was needed because the hilly land was unstable and the company wanted the development to be focused in a central area so that the surrounding hillsides could be preserved as open space.

The company learned a great deal from the development, he said, and will use those lessons in constructing the 14,000-house development it plans to carry out behind the southern Orange County towns of San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente.

Much of the building would occur on pristine land and watershed, a plan that the Sierra Club opposes because it considers the area one of the world's top 25 hot spots of biological diversity.

Ms. Peters said she thought that Ladera and Terramor should be the company's last development in Orange County. ''I just think it's enough,'' she said. ''Do you draw the line when there are only a few mountain lions left in the area, which is where we are now?''

Still, Ms. Peters said, Terramor at least sets an example. ''I don't think this is going to solve the world's problems,'' she said, ''but I think it's a very good starting point. It's a place where we can learn, and leave a good place for our kids and grandkids.''

Published: 08 - 01 - 2004 , Late Edition - Final , Section 11 , Column 1 , Page 13

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