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Boom in Riverside County Leaves Roads in the Dust

Dirt byways that once ran through orchards now serve housing developments.

June 09, 2003|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Mariposa Avenue defies definition as a road. Paved in fits and starts, deeply rutted in spots, freshly asphalted in others, it hiccups across the hills of western Riverside County, an emblem of how the region's unslaked need for moderately priced housing is devouring the Inland Empire.

There are at least 300 miles of dirt road in Riverside County, and potentially thousands more that have never been mapped, remnants of a bygone era when the Inland Empire was Southern California's rural frontier.

Now, thanks to a red-hot custom home market and the handiwork of some builders subverting weak zoning laws, the tattered dirt lanes weave past hastily erected stucco mansions in neighborhoods built without drainage ditches or street signs.

"It's kind of cockeyed," said Gaelyn Matthews, 45, who moved into a new four-bedroom home on Mariposa Avenue with her husband 11 months ago. Out front, half the road has been paved by neighbors who pitched in for some asphalt; the other half is soft dirt.

"It's not safe at all having both," Matthews said. "It's scary. People come flying down here."

The county, the fourth-largest in the state in area and one of the fastest growing in population, is ill-equipped to keep up with new roads and other infrastructure. Roads that recently meandered through orange groves now serve booming neighborhoods, turning from dust to mud when it rains. Emergency vehicles face potentially deadly delays because of disconnected streets that dead-end into gullies. Traffic jams the few paved arteries that span neighborhoods, and fatal accident rates on these connectors outstrip accident rates statewide for such arteries.

"It's the dirty linen of our whole county," said Supervisor Bob Buster, whose 525-square-mile district covers Mariposa Avenue and many other unpaved miles in the Woodcrest, Glen Valley and Mead Valley neighborhoods. "We need something like rural electrification

Some people love their dirt roads, though, and hate to see the new homes, increased traffic and other changes.

"When I give people directions, I tell them 'first dirt road on the left,' " said Bruce Rauch, who has lived on Cedar Street in Woodcrest for 14 years. "We like it out here. You know how those private communities put in speed bumps? Well, we have our own natural speed bumps."Out front, rainstorms have leached away portions of Cedar Street, opening irregular crevasses in the middle of the road.

"The only time it presents any problem is when it rains, and that's only a couple of times a year," Rauch said. "I just rent a tractor and smooth it out. Put it this way: It's never come to the point where we couldn't get into our own house."

"You don't want pavement because the horses skid on it, see?" explained Rauch's neighbor, Gary Hulbert, 66. Hulbert, an equipment broker, just sold his home and 1.4-acre lot with horse arena for $310,000.

"It's changed here, and we're leaving. Going to Oregon," Rauch said. "We're getting to the point where there's no place to ride anymore, there are so many houses being built."

A few years ago, someone polled Cedar Street residents about whether they wanted their street paved. Most said no after hearing the cost -- in Hulbert's case, $150 a month for 15 years.

"I don't know what they were going to put in, but it must have had a lot of gold in it," he said.

County officials say there is no comprehensive program for having the roads dedicated to the county, so there are literally tens of thousands of homeowners who own the tiny patches of road in front of their homes.

If they want paving, they may get some matching funds, but mostly they're going to have to do it themselves. At $400,000 a mile, it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to modernize the county road system, said Deputy Transportation Director Juan Perez.

That's a cost the county should pay, many say, for public safety.

When Lucy Zaragoza, 73, called 911 in April 2000 because she thought she was having a stroke in her Newman Street home, no one came. Her husband finally called back, and 25 minutes later a firetruck arrived. Fortunately, she was fine.

"Aren't I an emergency? I guess not," she said. "I called up twice to 911. I know it's a dirt road and very bumpy, but still."

County staff said the dirt roadways aren't the problem -- it's the lack of interconnected side streets. An ambulance driver relying on a Thomas Guide map thought Zaragoza's block could be reached from the nearest main road. But that road dead-ends in a wash a few houses away from the Zaragozas' before picking up again on the other side.

Capt. Rick Vogt of the Riverside County Fire Authority said firefighters are required to learn their coverage area, but when ambulances or backup firetrucks from other stations run into a maze of unmarked side streets, it can cause delays.

"They might not be as familiar with local landmarks -- a boulder or a tree stump," he said. He urged people to clearly mark their houses and streets.

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