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For Moreno Valley, Promise, Problems Mark Rapid Growth : The Inland Empire’s Newest City Struggles to Get a Handle on Things

<i> Times Urban Affairs Writer</i>

There is no official post office designation and the telephone information operator probably will tell you there is no such place, but 10 miles east of Riverside, along U.S. 60, lies the newly incorporated city of Moreno Valley.

This booming new city, with a population already pushing 60,000, illustrates many of the prospects and problems of the Inland Empire--the valley portions of Riverside and San Bernardino counties, extending from the Los Angeles and Orange County lines on the west to Moreno Valley and Redlands on the east.

Moreno Valley--a 42-square-mile city that includes the former communities of Edgemont, Moreno and Sunnymead--offers young families what they cannot find in Orange and Los Angeles counties--affordable housing in reasonably safe neighborhoods.

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In exchange, however, they must put up with long commutes, inadequate public services, poor planning and other problems.

Moreno Valley became the second-largest city in Riverside County (behind Riverside itself) when it was incorporated last December, and population continues to climb rapidly.

The Chamber of Commerce says there are between 60,000 and 67,000 people in the city. County officials use a more conservative figure of 56,000, but they say this could double in 15 years.

City Manager David F. Dixon jokes that the population was 45,000 when he was interviewed for the job last winter, 50,000 when he accepted the position in March and 55,000 when he started work in April.

The city is suffering acute growing pains as a result of this rapid expansion.

Schools are badly crowded. About a third of the district’s students are bused from neighborhood schools miles away that have no space.

Roads are congested and sometimes dangerous, because there are not yet enough traffic signals and some rural speed limits have not been changed to reflect the increased population.

New housing tracts, with strange street names, pop up so fast that the Fire Department sometimes cannot find the address of a reported blaze.

There are four different postal ZIP codes. Telephone books still carry listings for Edgemont, Moreno and Sunnymead but none for Moreno Valley. Information operators sometimes tell callers there is no such place.

An estimated 50% to 60% of Moreno Valley’s working residents commute long distances to jobs in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

“We keep hearing horror stories about guys who can just barely meet their house payments riding motorcycles to work in Long Beach,” said Todd Beeler, deputy director of the Riverside County Planning Department.

The new city already has a problem with “latch-key” children, youngsters left unsupervised by working parents.

The Eastern Municipal Water District is working furiously to keep up with requests for water and sewer service. In the last year, Eastern Municipal has installed 3,200 new hookups in Moreno Valley.

“It can’t last forever,” Jim Bunts, deputy general manager of the agency, said optimistically. “They’re bound to run out of land.”

Real estate flags fly over Moreno Valley housing tracts like banners over medieval castles. A thicket of property-available signs grows at every major intersection.

From time to time an outraged citizen takes a chain saw to these signs, but a few days later they sprout anew.

To add to the confusion, a campaign has been launched to recall three of the five City Council members only eight months after they took office. All three were supported by builders and developers and are accused by recall supporters of, among other things, failing to control the city’s growth.

“People are impatient,” sighed Marshall Scott, a State Farm insurance agent who is the city’s first mayor and one of the recall targets. “Everything should have been done yesterday.”

Uncontrolled growth was a major reason for incorporating Moreno Valley.

“We had to take control of our own future,” said Timothy J. Cooney, who was chairman of United Citizens For Cityhood, the main supporters of incorporation. “The community was just exploding and it seemed to be an uncontrolled explosion.”

There was also a feeling that Riverside County government was “not responsive to local needs,” Mayor Scott said.

He said the Moreno Valley area generated $1.7 million more in tax revenue than it received in county services in the year before incorporation.

Earlier Failures

Four earlier incorporation efforts had failed--the last one in 1982, when Woodhaven Developers Inc., the largest home builder in the area, contributed heavily to defeat the proposal.

“We opposed it because everybody who wanted to run (for City Council) seemed to want to stop growth,” said Bill Scarborough, Woodhaven’s marketing director.

But last fall Woodhaven joined other builders and developers in putting up more than $120,000 to support incorporation and to elect a pro-growth council majority. This time, cityhood was approved by 75% of the voters.

Three council members--Scott, attorney J. David Horspool and businessman Stephen Webb--were elected with strong developer support. These three are the targets of the recall effort. They often support high-density projects and they made sure that the city’s new Planning Commission was controlled by pro-growth interests.

A fourth developer-backed candidate lost and two candidates who received little or no support from developers--Judith Nieburger, a former school board member, and Bob Lynn, an elementary school teacher and retired Air Force officer--also were elected.

The new council has been working long hours as it tries to get a handle on city affairs. One meeting lasted more than 10 hours.

In addition to regular meetings, council members hold “study sessions” to become acquainted with such subjects as police services, flood control and road maintenance.

The pay for all this work is a meager $400 a month.

The council has appointed the city manager, named a Planning Commission, ordered an economic development study and launched several initiatives to bring new industry to the city, among other accomplishments.

Efforts to attract new industry are especially important because Moreno Valley, to remain fiscally healthy, needs a broader tax base than its present “bedroom community” status can provide.

Michael Hastings, manager of the Chamber of Commerce, warned that people will tire of the long-distance commuting and move back to Los Angeles and Orange counties if more jobs are not provided locally.

Both City Manager Dixon and economic consultant Wayne Wedin are confident that small manufacturers can be lured to Moreno Valley by the promise of low land costs and a plentiful labor supply.

One industry the city does not want, however, is the Wolfskill toxic waste disposal plant, proposed for the “Badlands” region just east of Moreno Valley. The City Council has hired a San Francisco environmental attorney to help fend off the proposed plant.

Moreno Valley hopes to annex the Riverside International Raceway property, just west of the city, with the expectation that a major shopping center will be built there.

There are also plans for an industrial park at the south end of the city and for an airport and business park at the eastern end.

Council members have been able to agree on all these actions, but on the key issue of growth they remain bitterly divided. There have been many 3-2 votes, with Horspool, Scott and Webb usually supporting higher-density development than Lynn and Nieburger. There have been fewer such votes, however, since the recall campaign began.

Even if the council did not approve a single new housing unit, however, substantial growth would be assured because of past decisions by the county. Jim Tebbetts of the county planning office estimated that 16,000 additional homes and apartments have been approved but not yet built and that another 19,000 are in the planning process.

During a four-year period in the late 1970s, 37,000 new lots were created in what is now Moreno Valley. These lots are filling up fast with homes and apartments. Last year more than 4,000 single-family homes and about 400 apartments were built in the city. Many of the new homes are small--750 to 900 square feet, on 3,600-square-foot lots, because of a 1981 decision by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors.

Seeking to meet a state mandate for more-affordable housing, the supervisors enacted a new “R-6" zoning ordinance that allowed construction of single-family homes on 3,600-square-foot lots, half the usual size.

Although the original intent was to spread this housing through the county, most of it has been built in Moreno Valley, adding to the city’s congestion.

The tiny homes have their defenders.

“I think they’re appealing if they’re designed properly,” said Bill Scarborough, whose company, Woodhaven Developers, has sold more of these houses than anybody else. “In most families, both people are working and they don’t have time to do yard maintenance.”

“The single-family home on its own lot, no matter how small, is still the American dream,” said former county planner Conrad Guzkowski. “I believe there are some problems with what we’ve created there, but how do you tell people they can’t have a $50,000, 900-square-foot house just because it offends your sensibilities?”

(Most of these homes sell for closer to $80,000 than $50,000.)

But Councilwoman Nieburger said the rapid spread of tiny homes was an important reason why incorporation was finally approved last fall.

“That triggered a real belief that county government wasn’t responsive to what people out here wanted,” she said.

Now there is a moratorium on new R-6 construction in Moreno Valley.

The city’s rapid growth has had its severest impact on the schools, where enrollment is increasing by about 12% a year. During the past school year there were 500 more new kindergartners than there were seniors in the graduating high school class.

Almost 150 new teachers were hired last year for the district’s nine elementary schools, two middle schools (grades 6 to 8) and one senior high school.

Although the state has provided $28 million for construction since 1981, and a new school opens every six months on the average, permanent facilities lag far behind the need.

As a result, a third of the district’s students are housed in temporary classrooms, paid for by developer fees that range from $1,271 to $2,023 per new housing unit.

“We wouldn’t be able to exist out here without the developer fees,” said David A. Christensen, assistant superintendent of schools for business services.

However, Moreno Valley has been unable to interest developers in setting up a special assessment district to pay for permanent schools, a tactic that has been successful in nearby Corona-Norco.

In an attempt to slow enrollment growth, the Moreno Valley school board has said it no longer will issue “letters of approval” to developers who are seeking zoning changes that would lead to higher-density development.

These “letters of approval” are only advisories to the City Council, which makes the final zoning decisions, but they are expected to cool the council’s ardor for approving new apartment complexes.

The school board action, the moratorium on R-6 housing, the City Council recall campaign--all of these should serve to slow Moreno Valley’s development for the time being.

But the interruption probably will be brief.

With thousands of new homes and apartments already approved and no sign of a letup in the demand for housing, this newest of Inland Empire cities should retain its “go-go” spirit for some time to come.

One of these days, even the telephone information operators may discover Moreno Valley.


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