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Inland California growth quickens. More people settling in foothills and valleys instead of on coast

For most of California's history, the state's development has been largely centered in the necklace of cities that hug the Pacific coast. Now, in a fundamental shift in settlement, the state is seeing some of its fastest population growth in the vast stretch of land extending from Riverside, on the edge of the Mojave Desert southeast of Los Angeles, up through the farm-rich Central Valley to Sacramento and beyond.

The change holds potentially important implications for a state whose economic activity and image have long been tied to its coastline. Some see the interior as an emerging third force in California life, balancing what has been the state's two traditional divisions, north and south.

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State demographer Mary Heim says the population increase ``is going to spur growth in the Central Valley's economy.'' But that growth won't automatically occur. In fact, some inland areas have high unemployment rates because job availability is not keeping pace with population increases. Many residents of the valleys and foothills commute long distances to jobs in the coastal areas.

Although the largest number of people continue to settle in urban coastal areas, notably in southern California, interior parts of the state are exhibiting the fastest rate of growth.

Figures to be released this week by the state Department of Finance project that the most dramatic spurt in population over the next few years will occur in the ``foothill'' counties, those nestled against the High Sierra east of the Central Valley. This includes such counties as Nevada, El Dorado, Calaveras, Amador, and Placer, many of which attracted settlers in the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s.

Booming, too, are parts of the Central Valley itself, a 15 million-acre trough down the middle of the state that is an intregal part of America's breadbasket. It holds one-sixth of the irrigated cropland in the US. But it has also come to support a grid of rapidly growing interior cities, such as Bakersfield, Sacramento, and Stockton.

Wells Fargo Bank, in a recent forecast, cited Stockton and a four-county area around Sacramento as one of the most dynamic metropolitan areas in the state.

Further south, the ``Inland Empire'' counties of San Bernardino and Riverside continue to be the pacesetters in the six-county Los Angeles region. A report by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) estimates that Riverside County's population will grow by 166 percent and San Bernardino's by 128 percent between now and the year 2010.

``It is where the land is available,'' says SCAG's Dennis Macheski.

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The growth in the state's interior is being driven by several factors. One is the obvious ``spillover'' effect from the crowded - and usually expensive - coastal urban areas. ``Rents for a single-family home go for $1,200 to $2,000 in the Bay Area,'' says Robert Penman, a population analyst with Fresno County. ``In Fresno, $500 is fairly expensive.''

A well-developed highway and railroad network has given interior cities ready access to, and enabled them to become storage depots for, much of the Pacific coast.

Perhaps most important, many residents are fleeing to parts of the interior to escape the congestion, traffic, and smog problems of the seaboard cities.

The interior, particularly the Central Valley, has a decidedly different feel from the rest of the state. California chronicler Kevin Starr recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times that ``interior California is American home country, sophisticated enough to be interesting, but remaining close - closer than a polyglot coastal culture can tolerate - to American things: homes in small towns, county fairs, pickup trucks, nights in the backyard over corn on the cob....''

The dark side of this bucolic picture is the job lag. The SCAG report estimates that, if present trends continue, Riverside County will only have enough jobs to support 43 percent of its populace by 2010. That means even more of its residents will have to commute to work in Los Angeles and Orange Counties than already do, aggravating traffic problems.

Moreover, some parts of the Central Valley are hurting because of the depressed farm economy. Unemployment hovers at 12.5 percent in Fresno.

Some of the newcomers, too, are beginning to run into some of the same traffic, housing density, and other quality-of-life problems in the interior that they thought they had left behind.

``There are people who say, `We moved away from LA to get away from the smog, and it's almost as bad here,''' says Bob Faseler, a researcher with the Sacramento Area Council of Governments.

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