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East County Leads Growth in Population


Ventura County capped a decade of slow growth with a population surge in 1999 as the white-collar east county erected new houses at the fastest rate in 10 years.

The county added 11,600 residents last year--more than half in Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks--and grew 1.6%, slightly slower than California overall, according to state estimates released Wednesday.

That means that 25 of the state's 58 counties grew faster, although Ventura County remained the state's 12th-largest county, with 756,500 residents as of Jan. 1.

Ventura County has grown at about the same moderate pace for three years, after slogging through a seven-year downturn caused by a statewide economic recession. And the number of new houses completed last year suggests another sharp increase this year as those homes are sold.

Nearly 3,600 new houses were built locally in 1999, up from 2,425 the year before and double the number constructed in 1994, the state reported. Three-fourths of those homes are in Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks and Camarillo--all upscale communities where growth is stoked by new high-tech businesses and a low-crime suburban allure.

"This may just be a catch-up for the slow periods of construction," said county planner Steve Wood, who tracks local demographic shifts. "But I think that pressure to grow is going to continue from Los Angeles. And we may grow at about the same rate until 2010 or 2015, when most of our cities will be built out."

At that point, after construction of some 50,000 more homes, the effects of the SOAR anti-sprawl measure will really begin to be felt, Wood said.

"They'll have no place to go to build, except inward if they want to opt for higher-density housing," he said.

Since 1995, voters in every large local city and in unincorporated Ventura County have passed ballot measures confining growth within precise urban boundaries until 2020 unless residents approve an expansion.

Those boundaries were designed to accommodate about 60,000 new dwellings. But build-out in some cities will arrive much sooner than in others. So much construction has occurred in the last couple of years that city-imposed limits on new homes are kicking in as well.

In Simi Valley, which added 3,600 residents last year, the city's 500 house-per-year limit is back in play. That is because developers built 1,203 new homes last year and 787 the year before--the highest each year in the county. That has depleted the housing allocation reserve that ballooned during the slowdown, City Manager Mike Sedell said.

"Now for the first time in a long time, we've run up against our allocation limit," Sedell said. "So there will be a much more limited number of houses being built--roughly 500 a year."

Even more restrictive in the long term, Sedell said, are city rules that forbid construction on hillsides with slopes of 20% or greater. "There's coming a point in a few years, when the valley floor is full, where there won't be any space anymore."

But for now, the boom continues as construction is completed at the 700-house Long Canyon project and other smaller ones, he said.

Across the Simi Hills in nearby Thousand Oaks, builders are also making up for lost time.

"We've really been busy here," Planning Director Phil Gatch said. "We run about 500 units a year, and we've been running more recently because mortgage interest rates were down, the economy has come back and we've had substantial employment growth."

Thousand Oaks grew by 2,700 residents in 1999 as builders completed 959 new houses--mostly in the huge Lang Ranch, Dos Vientos and Woodridge projects. Another 500 houses are under construction, and 3,000 more will be built in the same projects, Gatch said.

In just seven years, as these projects are finished, Thousand Oaks will essentially be complete, he said. Then over the next decade or so, perhaps 2,000 more housing units will be built on small vacant parcels around the city.

The Ventura County city with the highest growth rate was the landlocked beach town of Port Hueneme, which has remained about the same size for many years and where no new dwellings were built last year.

In 1999, however, state Department of Finance figures show a population increase of 800, or 3.5%, to 23,500. That baffles city officials.

"I don't know what to attribute that to," Planning Director Greg Brown said. "Maybe there was activity over at the Navy base."

But a spokeswoman at the nearby Navy Seabee base said there was no new building there, either, and that the base population stayed about the same.

Sandy Harrison, spokesman for the Department of Finance, said state records show 752 more Navy base employees in 1999, and the presumption was that they lived in Port Hueneme. "So that's virtually all of the increase."

Overall, Ventura County was the second slowest growing in Southern California. Its 1.6% rate compares with 1.4% in Orange County, 1.7% in Los Angeles County, 1.8% in San Bernardino County, 1.9% in San Diego County and 2.8% in Riverside County.

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