High desert's boom shrinks valued vistas

Times Staff Writer

Atop Cajon Summit, where Interstate 15 empties into the high desert, signs of development abound: Billboards trumpet new subdivisions; gleaming new offices of Frontier and KB Homes flank the freeway; a galaxy of twinkling city lights illuminates the dusk.

Growth is spilling beyond suburbs and up and over the San Bernardino Mountains and into the Mojave, with more than 300,000 people now residing in the so-called Victor Valley. They come for big houses on big lots that cost about $300,000 -- dirt-cheap by Southern California standards -- and to flee dystopian life "down the hill" in the Los Angeles Basin.

But development has triggered a new kind of sagebrush rebellion. Progress has brought sushi bars, Starbucks and chain restaurants to what was once jackrabbit country. Residents in the rural redoubt of Oak Hills worry that development is subverting the reason many of them moved there in the first place.

"This is the last bastion of rural living in this valley," said Herb Morin, a nurse and a dad who leads a scrappy group of residents called the Oak Hills Property Owners Assn.

Oak Hills is an enclave of about 7,000 people who love their sprawling ranch-style estates, which fetch up to $1 million. They enjoy riding horses and all-terrain vehicles around open desert. Coyotes, quail and an occasional bear amble down dirt roads.

It is an unincorporated area encompassing 28 square miles of high country, straddling Cajon Summit nearly 4,000 feet above sea level, with snowy winters and cooler summers than the Mojave plain. Unlike most of the surrounding desert, it is green year-round with forests of tall juniper and Joshua trees.

In the hills near the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains, residents enjoy commanding views of the valley below. But most of all, people are passionate about their 2 1/2-acre lots, the predominant land-use designation enshrined in the Oak Hills Community Plan, which residents and local government officials hammered out in 2002.

"People come here for the space," Morin said. "The 2 1/2-acre lots are just a buffer so you feel like you got a zone of your own."

Growth is threatening that rural lifestyle. It is trudging up the slope from the congested Victor Valley floor below and slicing through the core of Oak Hills along Interstate 15, where restaurants, stores and hotels sprout like wildflowers. The hotels are full -- not with vacationers but home buyers from the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario area.

Population has surged nearly 30% in the Victor Valley since 2000. In Hesperia, city officials approved about 1,500 permits for single-family homes this year and expect about 2,000 houses to be completed within three years. In the valley as a whole, nearly 97,000 homes have been built in the last seven years, according to Hesperia officials and the Victor Valley Assn. of Realtors.

Fred Chase, 58, moved here from Riverside to escape traffic and crime. He bought a 2 1/2-acre lot on the east side of Oak Hills, the portion within Hesperia city limits. He was completing his custom house when the city told him vacant land across the street on Rodeo Drive would be rezoned for 351 new houses on 109 acres -- eight times as many homes per acre than the rest of Oak Hills. Around the corner, at Topaz Avenue and Ranchero Road, another subdivision was approved, allowing five homes per acre, and about one mile to the north, Frontier Homes built the Copper Crest subdivision at four homes per acre in 2001.

"I never would have bought here if I'd known they were going to do that," Chase said. "Look at this," he said, gesturing to the few houses scattered over the rural landscape. "Everything here is on 2 1/2 acres. Nobody could be happy about having 300 homes built across the street."

Meanwhile, on the west side of Oak Hills, Morin and his community group are battling other high-density developments. Their green "Save Oak Hills" banners flap in the desert breeze along big streets where volunteers organize weekend protests and collect signatures for petitions.

The association is battling a developer seeking approval from San Bernardino County to build 215 houses on 55 acres off Baldy Mesa Road in Oak Hills. The county turned down the plan earlier this year, arguing that the project was inconsistent with the area's rural values. But the developer changed the name of the project, recast it as a senior living community and has reapplied.

Nearby, Suncal Co. won permission from the county Planning Commission to build about 200 homes on 148 acres, but the Oak Hills Property Owners Assn. has appealed.

On the south side of Hesperia not far from Oak Hills, the city annexed a vast ranchland area called Summit Valley to provide critical infrastructure and services to landowners eager to build houses.

Nestled in the shadow of the San Bernardino Mountains near Lake Silverwood, Summit Valley is a Shangri-La that development forgot. It is populated with creeks, wildflowers, cows, marshes, horses and an occasional homestead off Highway 173.

It was once the site of one of the largest Indian habitations in the inland region and the first Christian baptism in San Bernardino County.

Yet in several years, the Rancho las Flores and Summit Valley Ranch projects will sprout 17,760 houses on 11,000 acres -- boosting Hesperia's population about 68%.

"It's a planned community like Rancho Santa Margarita [in Orange County] or Temecula," said Hesperia City Councilman Jim Lindley. "Essentially, it's another city."

Lindley acknowledges that the surging development has been jarring. Hesperia, after all, is a town where people keep chickens and goats in their yards and the annual rodeo is a big draw.

"I used to hunt quail where my house now sits," Lindley recalls. "Now there are homes where there used to be open space."

Lindley said the city respects the Oak Hills Community Plan. But in Hesperia, along Topaz Avenue at the eastern edge of Oak Hills, the city has approved big subdivisions surrounded by high walls as well as residential densities that stand in stark contrast with the surrounding community.

City officials say they favor big tracts and planned communities over piecemeal rural development because builders promise new parks and land for schools.

Further, many newcomers moving from the L.A. Basin prefer tract-style housing near the Cajon Pass to reduce their work commutes.

As long as Southern California continues to grow, people will need houses, and many high desert communities are content to oblige.

"What we're gaining is a tax base to deliver government services people expect," Lindley says, "but we're losing the rural nature of the area. I don't care for it too much. There's not a lot we can do about it."

Indeed, the high desert boom shows no signs of abating.

Near Victorville, the Southern California Logistics Airport, formerly George Air Force Base, is receiving cargo from Europe, and city officials are working with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway to build one of Southern California's largest intermodal rail yards to accommodate growth at the Los Angeles port complex. It could bring thousands of jobs.

"There are powerful pressures up there in the Victor Valley," said John Husing, a Redlands-based economic development advisor. "It is the dynamic edge of the Greater L.A. area now."

Growth is also creating new urban problems that high desert residents thought they left behind when they moved here.

Crime is up in Victorville. A gang-related shooting recently occurred at Silverado High School, and violence is increasingly common at other campuses. The Mojave aquifer is in severe overdraft because burgeoning communities suck water from the ground faster than nature replenishes it. Schools are bursting at the seams.

Main Street and Bear Valley Road through Hesperia are a study in gridlock. Traffic on Interstate 15 in the Cajon Pass, a virtual autobahn in the 1990s, is up to 175,000 vehicle trips per day -- a 34% increase in five years -- and is congesting faster than any place in the Inland Empire as people commute to far-flung jobs in Los Angeles and Orange counties, according to data from San Bernardino Associated Governments.

"There are people who live in our city who don't see their homes in daylight except for the weekend," said David Reno, principal planner for Hesperia.

And, bit by bit, the Victor Valley is beginning to lose its rural feel. Oak Hills residents increasingly feel hemmed in and overwhelmed by change. It makes Morin and his cadre of resistance fighters more determined to make a stand.

"The forces for development are so strong and growth is happening at such a rapid rate, it's hard to resist," Morin said.

"It's so frustrating. The interests of developers shouldn't override the community at large."

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gary.polakovic@latimes.com

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