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Growth Boom Brings Big-City Problems to Once-Quiet California Town

November 22, 1990

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) _ Californians seeking cheap housing have helped turn this once-quiet farm town into one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities, but growth has brought big-city problems like crime, drugs and crowded schools.

″Fresno, unfortunately, is growing up,″ said nurse Tom Stoeckel at Valley Medical Center, which has treated cocaine-addicted babies in its obstetrics ward and where one or two gunshot victims routinely arrive each day.

″Fresno is developing a Los-Angeles type situation - we now have drive-by shootings,″ Stoeckel said.

The city of more than 350,000 also has crowded schools, street gangs and an inversion layer that makes it one of the worst smog basins in the nation. But city officials say the growth didn’t catch them by surprise and, with an abundance of open land remaining, they don’t expect it to ebb anytime soon.

″We were forecasting this kind of growth in 1981 and 1982,″ said Al Solis, the city’s development director.

In 1980, Fresno had 218,202 residents. Preliminary 1990 census figures increased the total to 350,794 - a 61 percent growth rate that boosted Fresno from the nation’s 65th-largest city to 47th. It also made Fresno the fastest- growing of the nation’s 50 largest cities.

Officials say growth was spurred by cheap housing, an aggressive annexation program that vastly expanded the central California city’s borders and an influx of Asian immigrants.

An average Fresno home costs about $100,000, compared with $250,000 in San Francisco to the north or Los Angeles to the south.

Among those who flocked to the area in search of cheap housing were thousands of Southeast Asian refugees, mostly Hmong. In 1979, officials say, there were about 30 Hmong in Fresno, compared with about 48,000 today.

As the growth boom took place, Fresno rapidly expanded its borders, annexing 21,951 acres of adjacent county land, a move that brought 38,000 former county residents into the city.

Highlighting the problems was a Labor Day rampage in which one person was killed and eight wounded. Police say four teen-agers associated with one of about 20 active street gangs went on a four-hour shooting and robbery spree, attacking people at random.

Growth has also caused crowding in some schools, and school officials have switched many campuses to year-round programs to accommodate added students.

Solis said environmental problems, including water shortages, could eventually slow Fresno’s population boom.

Several wells drilled in north Fresno produced water polluted by years of agricultural pesticide use, he said.

Officials say the city’s location in central California’s San Joaquin Valley, with its natural inversion layer, also gives it the potential for serious smog problems.

But despite the problems, Solis predicted growth will continue for several years to come.

″We don’t have the limitations that other cities in California have,″ he said. ″As long as the demand is there, and the supply, we’ll grow.″

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