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High desert's boom shrinks valued vistas

Along the Cajon Pass, many who came seeking refuge resent the profusion of housing.

December 25, 2006|Gary Polakovic | 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.

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