First came the traffic, the pollution, the crime, the crowding.
But when authorities in helicopters started hovering over Tom Devanney’s Mission Hills, Calif., home to chase squatters out of a nearby canyon, he knew it was time to move.
“We really got kind of tired of that,” Devanney said. “We had to get out of California.”
After a year of studying topographic maps and population data, Devanney, 53, and his wife found a new home. The computer programmer took a job and moved to Coeur d’Alene in October 1996.
At least 1,495 people followed similar paths in the last year alone.
More than halfway through the 1990s, Kootenai County’s population boom continues. And, as they have for the previous five years, Californians continue to lead the migration to the Panhandle.
The result, Post Falls city administrator Jim Hammond said, is a diversified economic base that makes for a richer, healthier North Idaho.
“We’re a stronger community now,” said Hammond, whose city is among the state’s fastest-growing. “We’re not dependent on any one factor to survive.”
But rapid growth also remains a fault line that has divided residents on everything from taxes to grass burning to development and school funding.
“Just look at the struggle we’re having trying to find space for all of our kids,” Hammond said. “Or try driving up or down (U.S.) Highway 95.”
And the region continues to have one of the country’s highest unemployment rates, currently hovering at just under 10 percent in Idaho’s five northern counties.
Recently released U.S. Census Bureau figures show Kootenai County’s population jumped 37 percent from 1990 to July 1996 to 95,535 residents.
Coeur d’Alene demographer J.P. Stravens believes that population number has since jumped to slightly more than 100,000, based on his annual review of housing developments and utility hookups.
Regardless, even the smaller figure makes Kootenai the third fastest-growing county in the state - the 32nd fastest growing of the nation’s 3,142 counties, according to the Idaho Department of Commerce.
“Typically, you see counties with the highest national rate of growth are counties associated with resort-type living,” said Alan Porter, department spokesman.
At least 25 percent of all new residents last year - about 1,495 - moved here from California, according to data from residents exchanging old driver’s licenses. That figure doesn’t take into account children or non-drivers.
Porter said it’s part of a continuing exodus of residents from California.
From July 1995 to July 1996, more than 246,000 residents from other countries moved to California. Meanwhile, 259,000 U.S. citizens left California.
It’s no coincidence, Porter said, that the nation’s two fastest-growing states - Arizona and Nevada - are adjacent to California, the country’s most heavily populated state with more than 31 million residents.
“California is kind of like the sun,” Porter said. “It overwhelms everything else in the West.”
And places like North Idaho, which has been drawing residents from the Los Angeles and San Diego areas for years, tend to create a sort of pipeline, where friends and family follow one another to a new location, Porter said.
It happened that way for Russ Reese.
The 40-year-old from California’s Riverside County moved to Coeur d’Alene in August 1994, following a brother, a sister and a collection of nearly 25 friends and neighbors who had moved to the Panhandle.
“Overdeveloped areas - like Southern California - are pretty ugly,” he said. “From time to time, everybody there says, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.”’
After three days, Reese found a job, and his family fell in love with Rathdrum’s New Life Community Church.
There, Reese met other new residents, like Steve Ridenour, a developer who landed in Coeur d’Alene four years ago after first reading about it in Sunset magazine.
“I always yearned for a place you could go where someone’s word was his bond and you could form a deal with a handshake,” Ridenour said.
But many residents worry the rapid influx of people is eroding just that type of camaraderie.
Residents increasingly wage battles over development proposals they fear threaten the character or environmental safety of their community.
Both sides acknowledged a long-time war between grass farmers and environmentalists over field burning grew even more bitter last year.
School districts from Bonners Ferry to Sandpoint to Post Falls are facing tougher battles over funding.
Rising taxes. Rising unemployment. Increasing congestion.
Still, area leaders say growth has stabilized a once-fragile economy. And they argue growth is better than stagnation.
“Before, our economy was mainly mining and timber,” Hammond said. “When you’re that narrow in terms of employment, it doesn’t take much to kill your economy. If timber dropped, or mining, you were dead.”
Hammond pointed to last year’s closing of a Louisiana-Pacific Corp. sawmill in downtown Post Falls as an example.
“If that had occurred 10 years ago, it would have been the death knell for this community,” he said. “While it certainly was devastating for the people who worked there, it didn’t have such a major effect on the economy as a whole.”
Today, Post Falls has a furniture manufacturer, machining businesses and computer services, Hammond said. While a decade ago there wasn’t a McDonald’s restaurant, now there are two.
“For years, I’ve stood on the corner of Spokane and Seltice either trying to pass a (school) bond or trying to get elected,” Hammond said. “What I’ve observed is that the wealth of the area has improved; people are driving better cars.”
Hammond said he would expect the migration to North Idaho to slow in coming years, but not dramatically.
“Our building activity has really slowed in the last couple of years, but I think we’re about due for some major recruitment hits,” he said. “I see continued growth, but not the boom we had in the early ‘90s.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo