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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

California sprawl slows down

A calm in our region's growth offers an opportunity to cope with water, traffic and other issues.

March 24, 2008, editorial, L.A. Times

The Census Bureau has released its annual estimate of county population changes, and as they have for years, the numbers for July 2006 to July 2007 show wild growth in Sunbelt cities in eastern California, Nevada and Arizona. But this year they also hint that the rate of growth may be slowing, and that coastal urban and suburban areas could be gaining ground. Riverside County, for instance, added 79,995 people in 2006 but just 66,365 last year -- not a reverse but perhaps a respite. San Diego's more modest growth, on the other hand, nearly quadrupled from 6,704 in 2006 to 26,497 in 2007.

These numbers hardly suggest that sprawl is dead. It's best to view them as yet more evidence of the housing downturn. Demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution spoke of a "migration correction." Just as bubble prices are declining -- in Los Angeles County, the median home price is down almost 13% from a year ago; County Assessor Rick Auerbach recently announced that his office had cut values on 41,000 properties by an average of $66,000 each -- boom-time mobility must decline too. As homes in urban areas lose market value, owners become loath to sell. They hunker down where they are, putting off buying that bigger, newer house on the fringes of the city or in more affordable markets such as Phoenix or Las Vegas.

The census data reflect a reality that many Southern Californians have already experienced firsthand. Today, thousands of families face foreclosure. Millions more worry about the falling value of their homes and the effects of a probable recession. As the numbers show, the pain is particularly intense in our region's far-flung, faster-growing counties. But Los Angeles County, unlike San Diego, has also shrunk. Most years, we enjoy population gains; as recently as July 2004, the county grew by more than 80,000 people. Last year, we lost 2,354.

There is a silver lining. Slowing growth in Southern California signals that the overheated market is in fact over and that the long, difficult process of correction, in which prices return to sustainable levels, is underway. If local officials are smart, they'll take advantage of sprawl's apparent stall to plan more carefully for future growth. In planning terms, think of this as a strategic pause, a moment to concentrate on water supply, traffic, school construction, infrastructure -- all of which tend to be brushed aside in the press of expansion but which need and deserve the long look that this moment may allow.

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