Arguing that the Inland Empire is running out of phone numbers, the California Public Utilities Commission voted Thursday to give western Riverside County a new area code while allowing San Bernardino County to keep its area code.
Residents of much of western Riverside County will switch to the 951 area code in July, though people calling them who mistakenly dial 909 will have a three-month grace period after that.
The commission voted 3 to 1 to approve the split. In casting the dissenting vote, Commissioner Loretta Lynch said that the majority "used yesterday's projections to split the area code, assuming yesterday's projections hold true for tomorrow, but they won't."
She said 2.5 million of the 7.9 million 909 numbers are unused, and a federal rule that goes into effect this month will allow customers changing their cell phone companies to keep their cell phone numbers.
"It's all a question of what's going to happen after that," she said. "What we do know is this: 95% of the use of new phone numbers comes from the cell phone industry in the 909 area code. If you can take your cell phone number with you, the need for new numbers should be drastically reduced."
Others, however, hailed the move.
San Bernardino County officials were pleased that Calimesa, which is in Riverside County but identifies with neighboring San Bernardino County communities, will remain part of 909.
Businesses typically oppose area code changes, but in this case, the Greater Riverside Chambers of Commerce unabashedly supported the move.
"We're very much embracing 951," said Cindy Roth, president of the chamber. "We're trying to move forward. Communities change. Areas change. We are also growing and trying to be very progressive. It works within our marketing component."
Roth added that the commission tried to accommodate businesses, because there is enough time before the switch to the new area code to allow them to use up existing letterhead and business cards.
In Southern California, where a three-digit prefix can be a status symbol or something to be ashamed of, some were thrilled to be rid of the lowly 909. The area code, linked by some with meth labs, cows and smog, has been regularly mocked by radio disc jockeys and the Newport Beach crowd on the hit Fox show "The OC."
Mused Riverside County Executive Officer Larry Parrish when he heard about the change: "What's in a number?"
He said he doubted that the jokes would stop with the new area code. "All that is silly," he said. "If people want to look down their nose at a region, they're going to do it."
Indeed, Kevin Ryder, half of the KROQ morning team of "Kevin & Bean," agreed.
"We can probably get used to calling the area of Southern California that smells like cow [manure] the 951. That doesn't seem so hard," he said. "If the PUC isn't going to physically replace the dirt with green grass and the meth with multivitamins, what's the difference?"