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State's population continues to shift inland, Census shows

MURRIETA, Calif. -- Four years ago, Daryl Collier sold his 1,300-square-foot home in Orange County and bought a house twice the size for two-thirds the price at the edge of this booming city.

The move came with a cost: Collier must now spend more time in the car to reach his job in Newport Beach, but he likes the space, the weather and the less stressful atmosphere of his new hometown, near Murrieta in eastern Riverside County.

"It's not the hustle and bustle you have in Orange County. It's just a slower lifestyle," he said. "You trade off the commute for the buy you get on the house. But it's worth it to us."

Thousands of people across California are making the same calculation, according to U.S. Census figures released Wednesday. Inland areas, particularly in Riverside County and the Sacramento region, are growing fast while pricey coastal regions are holding steady or losing population.

Lincoln, a bedroom community of Sacramento, had the highest rate of growth from 2002 to 2003, at more than 17 percent. Its population had more than doubled since 2000, to 23,080.

It was followed by Brentwood in Contra Costa County and Wheatland in Yuba County. Seven of the top 20 were in Riverside County, including Beaumont, fourth at 12.3 percent, and Murrieta, the sixth fastest at 10.1 percent.

Cities recording negative growth were clustered in the San Francisco Bay area, including San Francisco, Piedmont and Berkeley. High-priced Santa Barbara also was among the cities where population was down slightly or holding steady.

In May, the state Department of Finance released population estimates as of Jan. 1, 2004, that differ somewhat from the Census figures, which reflect the estimate as of July 1, 2003.

But the data reflect the same ongoing shift: Californians are fleeing coastal areas, where open land is scarce and home prices are stratospheric, for inland regions that still have the space, if not the water and roads, for large, new developments.

Sacramento-area cities have witnessed an explosion of suburban home building. Freeway congestion has followed, but planners have added two light-rail line extensions within 10 months.

Elk Grove, Yuba City, Lincoln and other once-rural towns have become landscapes of relentless construction, crowded schools, new churches and shopping centers.

Demand for new houses has grown so quickly in the six-county Sacramento region that land prices have tripled in two years, said Alan Newman, vice president for sales at Beazer Homes. The Atlanta-based builder expects to build 1,400 of the 20,000 new homes and apartments expected to rise this year in the region.

Imperial, about 120 miles east of San Diego, saw its population grow by 10 percent last year, with a current population of 9,425. Affordable housing, with new homes selling at under $200,000, are attracting workers increasingly willing to drive to jobs two hours away in San Diego and Riverside counties, according to city planner George Galvan.

There's also been substantial business growth stemming from increased trade with Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement, he said.

Murrieta, which draws many people who commute an hour or more to jobs in San Diego, Orange County or Los Angeles, incorporated in 1991 with less than 20,000 people. The new census figures put the 2003 population at 66,729, but a calculation by the state Department of Finance estimates that it's already above 77,000.

In any case, the city will grow much more. A general plan adopted last year envisions Murrieta with an eventual build-out population of 111,000.

Despite its growth, many insist that Murrieta still has small-town appeal, or at least a smaller town.

Collier, who works as a driver for a church after-school program in Newport Beach, said his neighborhood features views of nearby horse ranches. The town also boasts good schools and a dry climate moderated by coastal breezes that come through the Santa Margarita River Canyon.

But real estate is the main draw. New homeowners can pay $375,000 for a house that would cost more than $500,000 in San Diego, Orange or Los Angeles counties.

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Associated Press Writer Jim Wasserman in Sacramento and Michelle Morgante in San Diego contributed to this report.

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