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Desert Bloom : Dizzying Pace of Growth Takes Its Toll on Temecula, Murrieta

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The valley is most dramatic at night, when the clear desert air sparkles with an oasis of lights. Street lights, house lights, headlights.

They illuminate an inland valley once known best for its touristy antique stores, its rolling vineyards, its wide-open cattle ranges. A couple of side-by-side blinks of towns in the countryside halfway between San Diego and Riverside alongside Interstate 15.

Temecula.

Murrieta.

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For years, they were the kinds of places that made you wonder: Who would live there besides retirees and ranchers and maybe the fellow who runs the gas station?

Today they are boom towns, overnight sensations born of refugees from San Diego, Los Angeles and Orange counties--many of whom will continue to drive hellacious commutes to their jobs until these bedroom communities catch up in the jobs market.

In 10 years, the population of the Temecula and Murrieta valleys at the southern edge of Riverside County has catapulted from less than 10,000 to about 100,000. Most of that growth has occurred in the past three years, swamping the area like a flash flood in the desert. Riverside County planners say the two young cities and the adjoining unincorporated county area are going to double in population before the dust settles.

The dizzying growth has taken its toll, first in the arena of traffic. Lacking sufficient traffic signals because of a lag in funding, this former backcountry outpost is forced to put traffic cops at crowded intersections during rush hours.

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Little wonder that the area has become such a crowd pleaser. Here are spanking new homes in spanking new neighborhoods at bargain prices, framed beneath relatively clear blue skies and unmarred hillsides. It is a lifestyle or two removed from metropolitan ills, a wedding of urban sophistication and rural ambience, of youth soccer leagues and 4-H clubs, farm tractor races and championship golf courses and a home-grown radio station that plays Karen Carpenter songs.

For people such as Dave and Chris Davis, moving to Temecula was the chance to afford a home that, in the late 1980s, was significantly cheaper than comparable homes in Orange County where they lived.

The Davises, a young couple who moved from Tustin, are hunkering down for the good life with their 9-month-old daughter, Sarah, even if it means a 45-minute commute for Dave to his Riverside office.

“We would have stayed in Orange County if we could afford to buy a house there,” said Chris Davis. “But it’s exciting being here. Everything is new. And there seems to be a lot of young couples moving here, buying houses, having babies--people who are in the same place we are.

“Everyone we meet here is from somewhere different.”

Even though they have barely arrived, residents of Temecula and Murrieta already worry that the good life is unraveling. The community’s ambience is being overwhelmed by the people who sought it out. Even though the 35-officer Temecula Police Department--sheriff’s deputies under contract to the city--has not had a homicide yet, one can spot graffiti here and there, along with signs that gang members hide in the shadows.

That worries people such as Ed and Sue Madrid, who say their dream of living happily ever after is withering under the sun.

The young couple moved to Murrieta from Oceanside in 1988, saying that the San Diego coast is too fast-lane for raising a family.

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Already, they are looking to move out. They talk of Flagstaff, Ariz.

“All the people from L.A. and San Diego are moving out here--and bringing their problems with them,” said Sue Madrid, 27. “We’ve got crime, kids joining gangs, smog, traffic.

“Everything we moved away from is now following us out here.”

Bill Bopf, once city manager of Tustin and now a prominent realtor in the Temecula-Murrieta region, said: “In a lot of ways, this is a replay of Orange County. When Orange County first started, there was open land, not an overly great concern about growth, and it was a desirable place to live.”

Progress has proven to be bittersweet for Temecula, which incorporated as a city in 1989 and has a population of about 35,000, and for Murrieta, which became a city this past summer and is home to about 30,000. Another 35,000 or so live in the surrounding unincorporated area.

Just two years ago, two grocery stores were enough to serve the area. Now there are five. Two years ago, the biggest retail stores in town were a Payless drugstore and a Ben Franklin variety store. Today, shoppers can choose from a Target and Mervyns, and soon they will have K mart, Costco and Walmart stores. Neighborhood, national-brand chain stores and fast-food joints now line the streets.

Patricia Novotney was a school principal in Irvine six years ago when she was moved to Temecula to serve as superintendent of a single elementary school and a middle school that served 1,200 students. The high school students went up the highway to Elsinore.

Today, she presides over a district with a 2,400-student high school, plus six elementary schools and two middle schools for an additional 5,900 students, a child-care program for commuting parents to drop off children as early as 6:30 a.m., and plans to build 18 more schools for an expected 15,000 more students. Murrieta’s student population is going in the same direction.

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Special assessment districts, developer fees and state funding helped to pay for the school construction.

The component most lacking in the two communities is sufficient jobs for the local work force. An estimated 65% of the area’s working people leave town to go to work every day. The No. 1 destination, according to one survey, is Orange County; Riverside is second. Others drive to San Diego or Los Angeles; the headlights of commuters start illuminating neighborhood streets at 4 and 5 in the morning.

The area is trying to carve out a high-tech industrial niche focusing on the medical and computer fronts. The largest employer in the region is Advanced Cardiovascular Systems, where 900 workers manufacture devices used for angioplasty. Five hundred more make power semiconductors for International Rectifier.

The dozen wineries are said to contribute $32 million to the local economy.

Business boosters tout the region’s ideal location as a distribution center: 90 miles southeast of Los Angeles, 60 miles north of San Diego. And don’t forget, they add, the relatively clean skies, cheaper land, relative abundance of water thanks to an underground aquifer, and a freeway that is wide open by Southern California standards.

Until just a few years ago, first-time home buyers could purchase single-family tract homes for $120,000 “and people in Orange County were selling their homes there for $500,000 and coming out here to buy 10-acre estate homes for $300,000 or $400,000,” Bopf said.

In 1989--in the face of an increasingly anti-growth sentiment brewing in Riverside County--the residents of Temecula voted to incorporate as a city. For years, Jerry Allen, his wife and three young daughters lived in Placentia in Orange County--and he commuted to downtown Los Angeles as a deputy sheriff. In 1977, they moved to a 10-acre parcel in Murrieta, drawn by its pristine, rural setting and small-town (population then, 2,000) feel, the kind of place he wanted to raise his daughters.

He still commuted to downtown Los Angeles, a 1 3/4-hour trip. Two other jobs--and two other miserable commutes--later, he admitted that his long hours away from home were taking a toll on family life--a dilemma, he said, that confronts many of the valley’s commuting breadwinners.

“You don’t get to see the kids growing up. By the time you get home at night, at 7:30 or later, everyone’s tired, the dinner is late and nobody feels like talking much.”

So, in 1987, Allen hired on full-time with the Murrieta Fire Department, where today he is a battalion chief.

He talks wistfully of the old days in Murrieta. “It would take you an hour to go to the store--not because it was far away, but because you’d know everybody there and you’d end up talking to everyone.”

Now, he is in and out of the supermarket in just a few minutes, finding himself in line with strangers.

But Allen has hardly turned his back on the community. When Murrieta voted to incorporate, he was elected mayor.

Down the street in Temecula are similar strains of concern about the changes.

Sal Munoz, a civil attorney who moved from Rancho Cucamonga to Temecula in 1989 and was elected to its first City Council that year, said the city has been paying too little attention to preserving its small-town life.

He said he is discouraged that the young city lacks a general plan and described the council majority as “pro-development at almost any cost.”

“There’s no logic to growth, yet we continue to approve project after project without waiting for the general plan,” he said. “I take some comfort in knowing that we’re no L.A., but I know that it’s only going to get worse.”


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