California's Central Valley

Tracts Gobble Up US Produce Basket. Orchards giving way to subdivisions as residents flee coast.

AMERICA'S greatest farm state is paving its fruit-and-vegetable paradise and putting up ... suburbia:

* On the north side of Fresno, miles of fig orchards along Herndon Ave. are plowed under every day to make way for developments with names like "Ville Capri,Mirage," "Stonebridge" and, ironically, "The Fig Orchard."

* Along the once-rustic perimeter of Modesto - weathervaned barns, split-rail fences, and silos - incongruities clash: Glass-walled health clubs jut into corn fields and almond groves; dental clinics abut animal pens and grazing land; neon pizza signs blink into adjacent farmhouses.

* On Route 99 near Merced, a Gulf-war sized fleet of yellow bulldozers sits poised for projects large and small from Bakersfield to Redding. Following the trend of the 1980s that pumped up the San Joaquin Valley's population 34 percent to 2.7 million, the state which produces half the nation's fruits and vegetables will lose 50,000 farm acres each year of the 1990s to developers.

"California's third shoe has finally dropped," says historian Kevin Starr, who once chronicled the rise of coastal populations north and south to the relative exclusion of the state's agricultural inland. He calls the growing political, social, and economic entity, "California's Third Force."

"We are now witnessing the great offloading of congestion from the coast," says Mr. Starr.

The capital city of what author Gerald Haslam has dubbed "The Other California" is Fresno, whose share of California's 6 million new faces in the 1980s bloated the city by 63 percent. The largest city in America's most productive farm county, Fresno also has become one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation [see chart]. With tract housing growing in every direction from a decaying downtown, the city now covers 100 square miles with 370,000 people.

"We are the hot-growth spot in California," says Fresno Mayor Karin Humphries from her days-old office in the new, $30 million glass-and-steel City Hall downtown. "But growth means pressure on quality of life," she adds, ticking off the growing challenges of congestion, crime, air and water quality, affordable housing, transportation, and sewage. The list is the same in Modesto - where the population grew 60 percent in the 1980s as well - and for the nearby cities of Visalia, Stockton, and Bakersfield.

Smog levels in Fresno county have become among the worst in the nation, with ozone levels exceeding those of New York and Chicago. Researchers at the University of California have shown resulting crop yields diminished by 20 percent. Water and sewer bills being raised, in part to help pay for filtering out such pesticides as DBCP, which has been found in nearly half the county's wells.

"Some days, you just want to pack it in," says Richard Gerringer, president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau and a local grape grower, complaining that the agricultural community is buffeted from all sides. Residents complain of the dust, noise, and smell of the farms that are often separated from housing by no more than a small retaining wall. Blamed by urban California for using 80 percent of the state's water and for polluting food with pesticides, farmers say they have been saddled with so many regul ations that many want to hang it up for good.

"Farmers are rethinking their futures," says Mary Ann Warmerdam, director of Natural Resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF). Last year's record-breaking freeze and the ongoing drought added to growing woes. "They're asking, 'Is this the lifestyle I want to pass to the next generation?' "

Humphries says that the Central Valley's problems are so large that they need to be dealt with on a regional basis. A new, eight-county air-quality board is starting to help, but its structure is not as powerful as local cities need, she says.

State and federal help has fallen precipitously over the same period. The new administration of Gov. Pete Wilson (R) has made growth issues a priority, but promised proposals from his State Office of Planning and Research have not materialized.

"The state needs to coordinate the 42 separate plans it has already prepared," says Ernie Silva of the League of California Cities. The league represents the state's 463 cities and is developing regional solutions to firmly entrenched problems. Existing mandates concerning affordable housing, endangered species, agriculture, and development frequently clash head-on, he says.

Immigration of Hispanics and Southeast Asians since 1980 have left Fresno without a white majority, and the largest number of Laotians in the country. Recent strikes by Hispanics over diluted representation in district elections and local school boards have underlined new political pressures.

Crime levels have increased dramatically according to both local police departments and the California Highway Patrol. One Fresno Bee report chronicled an average of one drive-by shooting a day in October, 1990, statistics usually associated with the gang life of Southern California. The Fresno Chamber of Commerce reports the list of gangs has grown to 400.

"Fresno has become a haven for those folks on public assistance," notes Nelson Lampe, an assistant managing editor with the Fresno Bee. Since rents are half those in San Francisco and Los Angeles, the $788 welfare check for a family of four goes much further here. "That has become a major concern," adds Mr. Lampe.

Many occupy areas of downtown which have deteriorated with the loss of state and federal community development block grants, once critical to the maintenance of older historic communities. "People and new companies want to escape to the new developments to the north," says Humphries.

John Quiring, president of the Fresno Economic Development Corporation, says the new growth is changing Fresno's sense of identity from that of an outpost in a primarily agricultural community, to a bonafide metropolitan entity of its own. The growth of a medical community and a media network that is not dependent on other large cities are key elements, he says. Residents begin to think of their own community first in matters of culture, recreation, and advanced health care.

"When a population hits 300,000, it's like going through a kind of puberty between big town, small city," says Mr. Quiring. "It's an exciting time for some people, scary for others." Recession has exacerbated his office's main function of creating jobs for both existing and new population. "We create 10,000 new jobs and look bad because 11,000 need them," he says.

For all the clashes between new and old residents, immigrants and farmers, it is still easy to find those content, even thrilled, with the changing lifestyles.

"It's not a backwater town anymore," says Lampe, who sold a "junk stucco" house in the San Francisco Bay area for $139,000 and bought one 25 percent larger here for $110,000 four years ago. The same house goes for $240,000 in a congested suburb of San Jose, he says. This area "is the ideal place to raise a family," says the father of two.

Bryon Moore, who grew up in nearby Modesto, left for a decade and returned in November, is also upbeat about Central Valley growth but less sanguine about the environmental tradeoff.

"I'm a hunter and a fisherman, so I love being close to lakes, mountains, wetlands," he says. "But I'm really concerned at the extent to which we are gobbling up wetlands and farms. I want to know how the growth can be contained."

For her part, Fresno Mayor Humphries has taken neither a pro- or no-growth stance. Recognizing that a certain amount is inevitable, she says the best course is to lay a solid foundation to deal with it: education that spawns responsible taxpayers and helps minimize crime and welfare; cultural growth that attracts top businesses which in turn bring employment; and infrastructure improvements that minimize congestion and pollution.

"All this sprawl means change, but it also means the culture is richer," says Roger Tatarian, a prominent local columnist. He notes the growth in ethnic festivals, dance societies, and expanding drama departments in local universities. "The Valley's becoming a place of its own, rather than a stop on the way to somewhere else."

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