Old West Welcomes Today's Urban Pioneers : Victor Valley: The four cities beyond Cajon Pass are welcoming an influx of residents who like the home prices and clean air.

Boyer is a Riverside free-lance writer

If you wondered where singing cowboy Roy Rogers went after singing "Happy Trails," look no farther than the Victor Valley.

The "King of the Cowboys" settled there 25 years ago in the town of Apple Valley. Horse Trigger is there too, in Rogers' Victorville museum, along with wife Dale Evans' steed Buttermilk and faithful dog Bullet.

"I like it way up here where you can be out in the desert in five minutes," said Rogers, who has land on the Mojave River where he raises palomino colts.

Yep, Rogers and Evans still have a ranch. They don't do a lot of galloping around anymore, but they haven't strayed too far from those country-western roots.

That's the way it is in the Victor Valley.

Joseph W. Brady, president of Bradco Development in Victorville, moved from Santa Barbara and found he needed a truck instead of a fancy car.

His friends from Santa Barbara thought he was crazy moving way out to the hot, wind-swept desert. Brady soon found the Victor Valley also gets cold enough to snow several times a year. But you meet a lot of "nice, friendly, down-to-earth people," he said.

He also found the area is eager for growth, unlike Santa Barbara and many other parts of Southern California. After decades of rural restfulness, the affordably priced valley is expected to be the boom town of the 1990s, one of the last places in Southern California where you can buy a new home for less than $100,000.

For centuries, explorers and pioneers struggled westward through the valley and adjoining Cajon Pass on foot, horseback and wagons. In 1885, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway laid tracks through the pass and the valley above it. The railroad superintendent was a fellow named Jacob Victor, who soon had a town and later the whole valley named after him.

By the late 1800s Victorville was "a wild ripsnorting town," with miners and cowboys shooting at each other. The town's numerous saloons and houses of ill repute drew workingmen from surrounding valley communities, said John Swisher, a local historian.

When they weren't aiming at each other, area residents fought local Indian tribes. The last Indian battle in Southern California took place in 1867 at Chimney Rock near Apple Valley.

Years after the real shoot-outs ended, Hollywood came to Victor Valley to film Westerns where real wagon trains and the Pony Express once traveled. Movie stars liked the place and bought their own spreads. Dude ranches were popular, recalls Alfred Gobar, a Brea real estate consultant who grew up in the community of Lucerne Valley.

Times have changed. Now, instead of settlers in covered wagons traveling west through the Cajon Pass, they're heading east in station wagons to the Victor Valley. Ranches and farms are giving way to subdivisions that draw buyers from Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, as well as other areas.

Although the area's cleaner air and elbow room add to its appeal, lower home prices are the most compelling factor, and the Victor Valley is about as affordable as you can get in Southern California.

Some new single-family detached houses are available for less than $100,000, with many more in the low $100,000 range. At the other end are 3,000-square-foot tract homes on half-acre lots priced near $250,000, and even larger, more expensive custom homes.

With its reasonable prices, Victor Valley has a lot of first-time home buyers. But there are also plenty of people buying a dream house away from urban problems, said Greg Noel, a consultant with the Meyers Group research firm in Corona.

The Victor Valley represents a better quality of life to these move-up buyers, said Noel, who grew up in Apple Valley. Unlike other areas of Southern California where sales are slumping, Victor Valley real estate is still selling, he said.

Victor Valley includes four cities--Adelanto, Apple Valley, Hesperia and Victorville--and several unincorporated communities, with a total population of about 200,000, expected to more than double in 10 years.

From 1989 to 1990, Victorville, once a stagecoach stop and rowdy railroad town, increased its population by 27.8% to become the second fastest-growing city in the state, according to the state Department of Finance.

Victorville incorporated in 1962, earlier than other valley cities and has long been the area's business center. The city has the San Bernardino County Fairgrounds, a community college and the Mall of Victor Valley with about 110 shops. A 126,000-square-foot Wal-Mart discount store opened in January, one ofthe first in Southern California.

Many of those new Victorville residents live near the mall along busy Bear Valley Road, where fresh subdivisions stretch out into the distance and the roadside is crowded with new-home signs. On the frequent grand opening weekends, clowns and other promoters line the road waving home shoppers toward their models.

Nearby are local plants with distinctive twisted branches that Mormon pioneers named "Joshua trees" after the biblical leader. When the trees, a symbol of the high desert, get in the way of development, builders must provide a relocation plan to use the trees in landscaping or move them for "adoption" elsewhere.

Developers in the Bear Valley vicinity include Barratt, Costain and Premier. Another is Inco Homes, whose Eagle Ranch project opened last May and will eventually have more than 2,000 single-family homes.

Houses start at $113,990 instead of closer to $120,000 as originally planned. With sales slow elsewhere in Southern California, Inco President Ira Norris said he wanted to make sure Eagle Ranch would attract buyers, which it has--190 at last count.

Upland-based Inco started constructing homes in 1981, and has built about 1,900, more than anyone else in the Victor Valley. Norris said he started buying land in 1978 when it was cheap, which gives him a competitive advantage because he can keep his prices a lot lower than developers buying acreage now.

In 1982, Norris opened Liberty Village, where houses sold for $48,990. Eagle Ranch land purchased for $10,000 an acre would now cost $50,000 to $60,000 an acre, he said.

With Inco and dozens of other developers at work, the sound of backhoes and hammers has replaced the sound of gunfights and cowboys in the Victor Valley. Now it's full of folks like Mike and Julie Mines, who moved from Whittier to Spring Valley Lake, a gated community outside Victorville.

They were returning from a trip to Las Vegas in 1989, when they discovered the development and bought a house overlooking the lake. The second thing they bought was a boat.

"It's like Newport Beach in the desert," Mike Mines said. The couple moved from Whittier with their two children after their house was finished. "I liked Whittier but I like this better," he said. His new neighborhood has cleaner air and less traffic, and they have a larger house with a great view.

Houses cost less, too. About $1,000 a mile cheaper, according to Bob Grissom, supervising analyst/forecasting for Contel of California, the local telephone company. Houses 100 miles from Orange County cost $140,000 instead of $240,000.

Homes closer to Cajon Pass cost more because they're a shorter commute to jobs in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Ontario where many residents work. As you go farther north toward more remote areas of the valley prices are lower.

So, while most new houses in Victorville and Hesperia start near $100,000 and approach $200,000, those in less-developed Adelanto start as low as $79,990 at Inco's American Tradition and most don't go far above the $100,000 mark.

Apple Valley residents also have a longer commute but homes there have the appeal of larger lots--usually at least half an acre. Places at the Applewood Estates II development by Roy J. Vance range from $96,900 to $124,900 and are in size from 1,207 to 1,787 square feet.

The apple orchards are long gone but Apple Valley strives to keep its rural atmosphere despite its population of about 47,000. It incorporated in 1988 as a town instead of a city.

There isn't a lot of industry, but plans call for industrial development near the general aviation airport. Several neighborhood shopping centers are being developed and there are long-range plans for a regional mall in the Jess Ranch development.

The Jess Ranch retirement community is one of the few places in the Victor Valley with condominiums. There aren't a lot of apartments either. Renters tend to be construction workers and military personnel. Typical apartment rents range from $350 to $650 per month, while two- and three-bedroom houses usually rent for about $500 to $800 a month.

But most people moved to the area specifically to buy a home they could afford.

"There's no reason to drive over that hill (Cajon Pass) if homes are the same price as down below," consultant Gobar said. As many as 60% of valley residents drive to jobs "over the hill," the phrase high desert residents use to indicate everything from San Bernardino west to the ocean. Those who commute to Los Angeles usually rise before dawn.

Before he was recently transferred, Dwight Collins had to leave Apple Valley at either 4:30 a.m. or 8 a.m. to spend an hour and 45 minutes instead of four hours driving to his job in Torrance. Even in the best of times, it was a long drive.

"When you come over the Cajon Pass you let out a big sigh--thank God, I'm home again!" Collins said.

Like Collins, most newcomers commute, although not all drive as far as he does. Many work in Ontario, San Bernardino and Riverside, about 40 or 50 minutes away. Several residents said freeway traffic isn't bad, although exits and entrances back up at rush hour. Road improvements are planned and more freeway exits and entrances.

Mike Mines commutes from Spring Valley Lake to downtown Los Angeles during the week, where he's a Los Angeles Police Department sergeant. It takes him about an hour and 40 minutes. He said the San Bernardino County stretch of the drive isn't bad at all--it's only tough once you approach Los Angeles. It helps that he works a 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift.

Those long commutes should make Hesperia's location--the first city after the pass--especially appealing to home buyers, said City Manager Robert Rizzo.

Hesperia, incorporated in 1988, is the largest city in the Victor Valley, with about 50,000 residents. That's almost 6,000 more people than neighboring Victorville but Hesperia has only half the sales tax revenue.

"Victorville had sewers, we didn't," Rizzo said. Since incorporation the city has improved police protection and is working on installing sewers, sidewalks and street lights. Better roads and freeway access are also in the works. Rizzo hopes the improvements will attract more stores, perhaps a mall and some industry while maintaining Hesperia's rural flavor.

He acknowledges that not everybody is happy about new stop lights and housing tracts. The city wants to pacify those residents by maintaining Hesperia's core with large lots that have room for horses. The 17 miles of freeway frontage on Interstate 15 will be developed more densely.

Hesperia will grow even more with the addition of two planned developments. One is Belgate, a 940-home project by Homestead Land Development. Belgate will include shopping centers as well as single-family homes designed for first-time buyers, said Richard L. Crook, general manager and vice president. Construction should begin later this year and houses will be available in early 1992, priced from $120,000 to $180,000. he said. The other is Rancho Las Flores, a 15,000-home community scheduled to begin construction by 1992. The project will have eight "villages" developed over the next 15 years.

About half of the nearly 10,000-acre development will be open space, including the existing Las Flores Ranch, said Oliver Cagle, president of Las Flores Group Inc. of Laguna Niguel. The ranch is a thoroughbred breeding and training center.

The ambitious project also includes plans for two golf courses, shops, offices and a business park. Rizzo said the ritzier housing will attract the anticipated next wave of newcomers, the young executive crowd.

Already recent arrivals are younger, have higher incomes and are more likely to commute than longtime residents.

Area civic leaders hope to find ways to bring more jobs to the area, and are trying to attract industry as well as thousands of houses. Today the major employers are the construction industry, telephone company, school districts, cement plants, hospitals, trucking companies and the military.

Especially eager to invite business is Adelanto, the smallest but most pro-growth city in the whole development-friendly valley.

Adelanto is probably best known as the home of George Air Force Base. However, the base is scheduled to begin closing by 1992 and shut down completely by 1995, said Sgt. Jorge Caballero. Some military retirees in the area are worried about losing base services. Other residents are concerned about losing the base's 700 civilian jobs and 5,000 military customers.

But despite the loss of base jobs and customers, not everyone will miss the facility. Its low-flying jet fighters on frequent training missions are noisier than commercial airliners, said Judy Crommie, president of the Adelanto Chamber of Commerce and a member of the city Planning Commission.

She and city officials want to transform the base into the High Desert International Airport, linked to Las Vegas and Orange County via a high-speed train. The airport and related businesses could bring 40,000 jobs and plenty of money to Adelanto.

Adelanto's neighboring cities are interested in the project as well, but "we think we have more right than they do," said City Administrator Pat Chamberlaine. "The major portion of our city has been affected by the base for the last 48 years." The facility could take 10 to 20 years to complete.

The city has also developed two industrial parks and is working on a third. Among interested businesses are cabinetmakers who can't meet tougher South Coast Air Quality Management District standards in the smoggy lower basin, Chamberlaine said.

Roadway Express Inc. moved its freight-sorting terminal from Los Angeles to Adelanto in 1981 to take advantage of lower land costs, said John Hyre, spokesman for the Akron, Ohio-based trucking company. Roadway has more than 800 employees in the high desert and is adding more as it expands. The labor market is good and getting better as more people move to the area, Hyre said.

Not only land costs but the speed at which a plant could be approved and built appealed to Northwest Pipe & Casing. The pipe manufacturer bought 40 acres and built a $10-million plant last year. Adelanto's location also makes it easy to ship pipe to customers, said J. Peter Burke, vice president of the Portland, Ore., company.

Besides industry, the city's other efforts to attract revenue include the Hi Desert Casino where visitors can play poker and lo-ball.

A minimum-security prison for parole violators is about to open. A baseball stadium is being built for its new minor league team, the High Desert Mavericks, Chamberlaine said. Adelanto also has a motorcycle racing park.

Riding motorcycles and off-road vehicles are popular activities throughout the high desert. Victor Valley has a lot of other outdoor activities, with several state and county parks in the area and the San Bernardino National Forest nearby. Fishing and water sports are available at area lakes and the Mojave River.

But despite the Mojave River, substantial ground water supplies and potential use of California Aqueduct water, some desert dwellers are concerned that explosive growth will eventually mean water shortages.

The city of Barstow sued Hesperia, the Rancho Las Flores developers and others earlier this year. Barstow City Manager Eric Ziegler said Victor Valley development is swallowing water that otherwise would have ended up in Barstow, where the water table has dropped sharply in recent years.

Las Flores plans to use aqueduct water and conserve water in its landscaping so it won't drain desert supplies, developer Cagle said. Local water agencies recently placed some restrictions on water use in Victor Valley communities, although some said it was more an effort to conserve than an actual shortage.

But Apple Valley resident Myrtle Brown advises home buyers to check with their local water district about future supplies and get guarantees in writing.

Other residents aren't worried about water so much as they are open space. People who came to the desert to get away from it all many years ago now find themselves surrounded and have trouble adjusting to bustling development, said Wayne Lamoreaux, Apple Valley town manager.

Some solve the problem by moving farther out into unincorporated areas of the valley like Helendale, Oro Grande, Oak Hills, the Lucerne Valley and Pinon Hills.

Quite a few head for Phelan (FEE-lan), where most residents have several acres and livestock. Take Joy and Dale Roberts, who moved from Redlands six years ago and opened a feed store in 1988.

They have a lot of critters to feed themselves, including miniature horses, pygmy goats, chickens, ducks, geese and an emu, a large Australian bird similar to an ostrich.

Joy Roberts said some of her neighbors "left beautiful homes in Orange County that they sold for $200,000 or $300,000, moved up here and paid cash for 2 1/2 or five acres, built another beautiful home for $100,000."

The area is unincorporated and most residents like it that way, although there's been some talk of joining neighboring areas to form a new city, said Cheryl Drylie, owner of Express Graphics and Printing in Phelan. She moved to Phelan about 10 years ago after her husband, Gary, was transferred to the air base.

The Drylies are involved in a lot of local activities, like the Phelan Family Fun Days in September. Events include a parade, dance, carnival, spaghetti dinner, pet show and duck races.

"It's country living," she said.

Because the area is a bit isolated, people tend to help each other out, she said. Phelan has a "very strong Neighborhood Watch" and is trying to keep drugs and gangs out of the community, something that's harder to avoid as the valley gets more crowded.

The area has grown enough to attract Phelan's first chain stores in a new neighborhood shopping center with a Stater Bros. grocery store and PayLess drug store and other shops.

Joy Roberts said some people are wondering how to prevent any more development. "You can't stop growth," she said. "You either control it or move."

But most residents like it too well to leave. Even though Roy Rogers has seen the Victor Valley grow like crazy, he isn't willing to move. "What can you say? I just like the area and the way people live. The longer we're here the more I like it."

VICTOR VALLEY

Population

Adelanto: 8,600

Apple Valley: 47,000

Hesperia: 50,418

Phelan: 15,000

Victorville: 44,324

AT A GLANCE Population

1990 estimate: 152,489

1980-90 change: 104.6%

Median age: 32.6 years

Annual income

Per capita: 11,023

Median household: 25,481

Household distribution

Less than $15,000: 28.9%

$15,000 - $30,000: 29.0%

$30,000 - $50,000: 26.0%

$50,000 - $75,000: 12.1%

$75,000 +: 4.0%

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