Arizona as the new canvas for exurban mega growth

In the shady Old Town of this Sonoran Desert outpost, visitors might be hard pressed to identify which country - and which decade - they are in: carnecerias (meat shops), stone churches, radiator shops, and street-front movie theaters abound.

Blocks away, on main drags leading north to Phoenix and south to Tucson, chock-a-block development imprints the indelible stamp of Anywhere, USA, 2004: gated communities, cookie-cutter houses, and strip malls.

Surrounded by vast stretches of scrub desert and dusty escarpments, this small town and five others like it in Pinal County are among the reasons why Arizona is home to a population surge second only to Nevada's in percentage growth. Well beyond the sprawling suburbs - and even exurbs - of distant cities, the lure of inexpensive homes, desert views, and dry weather are enticing new families, retirees, and nonresident investors to the state's farthest outreaches.

"Pinal County has become the Orange County of Arizona," says Rita Maguire, president of ThinkAZ, a public policy think tank in Phoenix.

California's giant, once-rural county south of Los Angeles became a national phenomenon in the mid-'60s as it blossomed from orange groves into one of America's largest bedroom communities in little more than a decade.

Since so much of Pinal County is part of an Indian reservation, some demographers here say its growth may never equal the explosive boom of California. But most agree the comparison fits as Arizona's own kind of nascent "post-suburbia" America - a patchwork of communities lacking an urban core.

No new jobs among the new houses

And the millions of newcomers pouring in here each year seeking lower-cost homes and living costs may be remaking the rural face of the state for good. After five decades of steady growth - 40 percent over the past decade alone - projections show Arizona will be home to 8.2 million by 2020, the nation's 10th largest.

"The story of Arizona growth is that for as fast and far as it has come, what is about to happen will make the past look slow by comparison," says Rob Melnick, director of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University. Besides Pinal County, areas in southeast Arizona - and to the north, east, and west of Phoenix - also show signs of explosive growth.

The influx in Pinal County is part of a larger phenomenon that is producing housing and new population - but not employment - in several state regions. Statewide, developments have been chewing up open-range land, farms, and ranches at the rate of about an acre an hour over the past several years.

Largely unconnected to the local community by employment, the new buyers are from every corner the union. Besides being attracted to quieter, hassle-free living on the cheap, they are interested in outdoor recreation - including team sports, golf, swimming, hiking, hunting, and car racing. They also like the safety - no urban gangs, terror threats, earthquakes, or hurricanes.

Seeking the good, affordable life

Some analysts say the phenomenon reflects the graying of America.

"People are looking for the good life where land is dirt cheap," says Suzanne Bott, at the Sonoran Institute, a research group that tries to influence land-use decisions throughout Western North America. "As the baby boomers age, they are looking for a healthier lifestyle and ... because this is the American West, they feel this is the place to come for autonomy in 360 days of sunshine each year."

That's exactly what drew Joe Smith, a truck driver, to a development called Casa Mirage on the outskirts of town here. The recent retiree reflects a trend that some observers say is responsible for up to 40 percent of new homeownership in these areas: real estate refugees fleeing California's expensive and densely populated regions.

"I decided it was time to cash in on my home's value and take it easy for a while," says Mr. Smith, who moved from southern California three years ago. Since then he has watched his neighborhood development, and others, multiply in every direction. "As far as I can tell, none of my neighbors grew up around here."

The comment is compelling because state researchers say they aren't sure exactly who is buying up all the land. Those who are moving in are, for the most part, not employed in the area. Some are concerned that quickly accelerating house values will encourage purchases for rental use which can drag down community quality and upkeep.

Still others think overbuilding might occur and leave investors and speculators with sagging investments.

"The housing and population growth is far greater than the number of jobs coming in to support them," says Tom Rex, researcher at Arizona State University.

"Because they don't have jobs, no one can figure out who they are and how they make a living. Are they living here year round, do they want to jump back into the job market when the economy improves? It's causing a lot of concern for planners and investors."

Development in a thirsty land

Forgoing the contiguous, linear growth from city centers outward - a pattern reflected in many US cities - the Arizona outposts are presenting new challenges for policymakers in how to design infrastructure from highways to sewers and water delivery in a state scorched with six years of record drought.

"Aside from questions of whether development like this is bad or good aesthetically, we are pressing the limits of natural resources of the state, specifically water," says ThinkAZ's Rita Maguire.

Saving a sense of place

Many observers worry that less-sophisticated planners in smaller towns will be unable to stand up to powerful corporate developers and defend vernacular styles of architecture and a sense of place.

"Often, people in developing regions such as these are not given the choice of alternatives that might make life more pleasing and lucrative to people in the long run," says John Norquist, president of the Congress for New Urbanism in Chicago, an organization that studies and promotes the creation of higher density urban developments.

Some Western desert cities, Salt Lake City for instance, have been lauded for choosing more mixed-use urban models in which population is packed more densely into certain locales - creating pedestrian communities with residents living above retail outlets - and preserving open space. Meanwhile, other cities, such as Las Vegas, have let large-house suburban models devour previously picturesque regions.

Most critical, say observers, are how planners and citizens grapple with the issues of transportation, water, and schools. Voters Nov. 2 approved a half-cent sales tax that will provide billions in highway construction funds.

Water follows money

Yet while some planners point to the two, vastly depleted main water sources for the state - Lake Meade and Lake Powell to the north - others say vast underground aquifers have not even begun to be tapped.

"My guess is that we have enough to double the metropolitan region of Phoenix," says Mr. Melnick. "After that, the water will flow to where the money is. It might get more expensive but people will pay."

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