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Little City of Walnut Breaks Out of Shell

Times Staff Writer

Horses, cattle and sheep still dot a few of the rolling hillsides in this once-rustic community on the San Gabriel Valley’s southern edge, but most of the land here is being grazed instead by Caterpillars.

In the first two decades after its incorporation in 1959, Walnut, separated by steep hills from neighboring West Covina and Pomona, remained a sleepy rural enclave of 6,000, while housing tracts sprouted up nearby.

But today, the rumble of bulldozers echoes over the town’s nine square miles, heralding the more than 1,600 homes under construction.

“There’s one new project where they just barely finished the model homes and they already sold out the first two phases,” city Planning Director George Shindo said. “They don’t even have the foundations laid for the second phase yet.”

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On the Fast Track

The building boom has made Walnut the fastest-growing city in Los Angeles County, according to a study released recently by the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, a Palo Alto-based research firm that provides information on the state’s economic growth to state agencies and private developers.

In putting together its annual “growth index,” the center looks at increases in population, retail sales, residential building permits and the value of commercial development. Walnut placed No. 7 on the list of California’s hottest growth areas this year, after tying for 10th place in 1985 with Thousand Oaks.

Since 1980, Walnut’s population has increased by 65.9%. In those same six years, the dollar amount of goods sold in Walnut has quadrupled, the highest retail sales growth in the state.

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Walnut was 82nd in residential permits and 238th in commercial valuation per capita.

The reason for Walnut’s recent flurry of development, said Shindo, is that the city contains a good portion of the remaining open space in the San Gabriel Valley.

Once Shunned by Developers

In the past, the city’s isolation and uneven terrain made it unattractive to developers, who preferred sites that were easier to build on and closer to freeways.

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From the San Bernardino Freeway, Walnut is hidden behind Forest Lawn Cemetery and Kellogg Hill. The city is bordered by the San Jose Hills and the BKK landfill on the north and west sides.

“There was a time in Walnut when you could pick up properties just by paying the back taxes,” Shindo said.

“During the boom period of the ‘50s and ‘60s, most of the development was taking place on the flatlands,” he said. “But as those lands were exhausted, developers began looking toward the hilly areas.”

Irvine, which has topped the center’s growth index for the past two years, is typical of most rapidly developing areas in California: a glistening high-tech center on the outskirts of an urban area, bursting with new condominium complexes, shopping centers and industrial parks.

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Waves of Expansion

Other Southern California cities that are among the top 10 growth areas are Palm Desert, Indian Wells, Carlsbad, Palmdale and Rancho Cucamonga.

“They are cities that are in the second or third round of urban expansion,” said Stephen Levy, the economist at the center who developed the growth index. “We’re tending to avoid the word suburb in describing them because suburb has traditionally connoted a bedroom community.”

By this standard, Walnut is an anomaly, since city officials here see nothing wrong with the city remaining a bedroom community.

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Walnut has one condominium complex and an apartment building, and Shindo said that those two are the last. Responding to pressure from residents, officials here promise that Walnut has shut the door on high-density housing.

Single-Family Homes

“We do not have any future zoning plans for multi-unit developments--no town homes, no condominiums, all single-family homes,” said Gerald Sanders, the city’s superintendent of building.

Despite the rapid growth rate, city officials say they are seeking to retain Walnut’s bucolic ambiance.

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The city will reach “build-out"--the maximum level of development possible under current zoning laws--within the next five years. Even then, Walnut’s population will not exceed 30,000. Equestrian trails and eucalyptus trees will continue to be the city’s most prominent features.

“We probably have the strictest open-space requirements of any city around,” City Manager Linda Holmes said. “Another requirement of developers is that they build equestrian trails through their projects.”

Low Housing Density

Housing density is limited to one unit per acre, although developers have been able to increase density by trading property to the city for use as parkland or school sites, Shindo said.

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One developer was able to build two houses per acre in one tract but only after giving the city 184 acres of open space. Developers also must put in roads to accommodate increased traffic. The city gained Nogales Street and an extension to Amar Road from developers.

The city’s stringent growth limits and open-space requirements were implemented during the late 1970s as part of its revised general plan.

Faced with numerous applications from developers, the city placed a two-year moratorium on construction while it held public hearings and citizen-group meetings to determine Walnut’s future.

“What the people were saying at those meetings was that they wanted to keep a rural atmosphere,” Shindo said.

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No High-Density Housing

“They didn’t want any commercial development in the center of the city,” Shindo said. “They wanted a good recreational program, a good school system, and they didn’t want any high-density housing.”

The slow-growth movement has been led by long-time residents, ranchers and horse owners who are afraid the city will be consumed by suburban sprawl.

Although the city has sought to balance slow-growth concerns with the economic imperative of permitting development, disputes over new construction still arise.

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“There’s always people who move into the city who don’t want any more development,” Shindo said. “This applies not only to old-timers, but new-timers as well. People move in and say they don’t want new housing built. They don’t realize that some people were opposed to their house being built.”

Walnut’s high ranking in the growth index is based primarily on its high percentage increases in population and retail sales, which tend to exaggerate the city’s expansion. For instance, Walnut’s 300% leap in retail sales since 1980 outpaced Irvine’s 186% increase. But in raw numbers, Irvine’s sales jumped from $210 million to $601 million, while Walnut’s increase was much more modest, from $6.1 million to $24.4 million.

In fact, Walnut’s retail sales “boom” resulted almost entirely to the construction of two neighborhood shopping centers, Sanders said.

“Prior to that, we didn’t have any source of retail sales,” Sanders said. “The residents here were going out of the city to do their shopping.”

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Workings of the Index

Even after its 65.9% population increase, Walnut still had only 20,707 residents, making it something less than a teeming metropolis.

Walnut has four elementary schools (with two more planned), a junior high school, a high school and a continuation high school. The city also is home to Mt. San Antonio College, a community college serving about 18,000 students. The college is a little more than a mile down Temple Avenue from Cal Poly Pomona.

Levy said his growth index was designed to measure development in cities of varying sizes. Smaller cities will rank higher in the population and retail sales categories, which are based on percentage increases, he said.

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However, the index also takes into account the number of residential building permits issued per year--a statistic favoring larger cities--and commercial development per capita, which Levy said was a neutral factor.

“The index seemed pretty neutral between small cities and medium-sized cities,” Levy said. “A city had to be in the top 150 in three different categories to place in the top 10 overall. That would definitely indicate substantial growth.”


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