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WHAT’S NEXT?: Now the largest community in southwest Riverside County, it’s trying to respond to that growth.

11:01 PM PST on Thursday, March 10, 2011

By JOHN F. HILL
The Press-Enterprise

In a town that had nary a stoplight when he moved in, it now takes Murrieta resident Mike Kulow nearly 20 minutes to drive three traffic-clogged miles from his house to Sam’s Club.

Kulow, a real estate agent who moved to Murrieta 30 years ago, said he can barely believe how fast the city has developed.

“It’s actually kind of cool to be a part of and … to see it grow before your eyes like that,” he said.

Murrieta, a suburban community at the intersection of Interstate 15 and Interstate 215, added more residents than any other city in Riverside County over the past decade. Census figures released this week show the city grew by 59,184 people, more than doubling its population to 103,466.

Beaumont was the county’s fastest-growing community, percentage-wise. It increased its population by 224 percent, more than tripling in size to 36,877. In San Bernardino County, Fontana added 67,140 residents.

A massive building boom fueled Murrieta’s expansion, drawing thousands of young families to the city and, eventually, spawning a spiraling foreclosure problem.

Murrieta’s population jumped 134 percent and it is officially the largest city in southwest Riverside County, narrowly edging Temecula, its neighbor and sometimes rival.

‘NOT A COMPETITION’

Leaders in both cities, which have similar demographics and often compete for retail dollars, insist it doesn’t matter which city was officially the biggest. They recently launched a joint marketing campaign that bills the pair as the “Twin Cities of Southern California.”

“It’s not a competition,” said Temecula City Councilman Chuck Washington, who served on Murrieta’s City Council until 2003.

People have moved to southwest Riverside County in droves since 2000, the census data show.

Temecula’s population grew 74 percent in the past 10 years to just over 100,000. Lake Elsinore saw a nearly 80 percent population gain.

Families from San Diego, Los Angeles and Orange counties moved in looking for cheaper housing and easy freeway access. Developers moved in, too, building thousands of tract homes that now dominate the Temecula Valley.

At the height of the boom, the sum of all construction done in Murrieta in 2004 was valued at around $1 billion, said Allen Brock, the city’s building official.

Most of the rapid development occurred in the first half of the decade, until the housing bubble burst and construction slowed to a crawl.

Last year, construction valuation was down to $50 million.

Residents are now seeing the downside of their rapid rise.

Last month, one out of every 69 homeowners in Murrieta received a foreclosure filing, according to the foreclosure-tracking firm RealtyTrac. For that same period, one out of every 139 Riverside County homes received a foreclosure notice.

GRAPPLING WITH GROWTH

The explosive growth left city leaders scrambling to add roads, bridges, hospitals and schools to serve its expanding population. Projects are now under way to expand heavily traveled highway overpasses and add an additional lane to Interstate 215, where four lanes of roadway are clogged with vehicles daily.

Traffic is a constant gripe for residents.

Mayor Randon Lane said adding infrastructure was, behind public safety, the most important job for city leaders.

The city is still mostly a commuter town.

The average resident drives 36.5 minutes to get to work every day, according to the census.

The influx of young families left schools, too, hard-pressed to keep up.

Enrollment in the Murrieta Valley Unified School District has nearly doubled over the past decade, to 23,000 students.

Seas of students elbowed their way to classes. Murrieta Valley High School, at the start of the decade the city’s only comprehensive high school, was at one point nearly 70 percent over its intended capacity.

Students enrolled not just at the beginning of the year, but constantly, forcing administrators to erect temporary classrooms at most of the city’s schools.

“The kids just kept coming and coming and coming,” district spokeswoman Karen Parris said.

At the start of the decade, Murrieta Valley had 10 schools. By 2010, Parris said, it had built another 10.

The Menifee Union School District, whose boundaries reach into the Murrieta city limits, opened a new school in the city 2005 and has plans for another.

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