Two words: shock and awe.
Yesterday, I drove north on Highways 5, 99 and 70 into that Yuba County growth frontier that offered such a great relief valve earlier this decade for people with jobs in Sacramento who couldn't afford to buy houses in Sacramento.
It had been a few years since I've seen the place - especially those giant master-planned communities of Edgewater and Plumas Lake that rose off the flat lands almost overnight. I am telling you: it is hard to overstate what a fall they have taken.
I knew sales have been slowing for a couple of years up there as it became cheaper to live in Lincoln or elsewhere near Highway 65 and to skip the commute. Now, gasoline is so expensive - $4.19 yesterday at the Shell station on the exit ramp to Olivehurst's Edgewater - that people have to think hard and long about buying up there and driving 40 or 50 miles south every day.
What did I see? Obviously there are the thousands of houses built during the boom to start with. It's amazing how many people have moved up there. Thousands. You have to see it to believe it. Yuba County dreamed a big dream and everybody came.
But it was the abrupt end of it all that really got my attention. I don't think I saw more than 20 houses being built all day - and most of those were at a D.R. Horton project in Plumas Lake that I am sure they are trying to be done with and move on.
Mostly, it was acres and acres of dead subdivisions that just jumped out at a driver touring this part of the state. In so many places the streets and sidewalks are in, the utility wires are sticking out of the ground, the street signs are up - and it's nothing but weeds almost as far as you can see.
It's also the houses still awaiting buyers: In Edgewater: A street of 20 houses built by Roseville's JMC Homes with only one house occupied.
In Plumas Lake: a Ryland Homes subdivision called Thoroughbred Acres. Five lovely models and nothing else. Behind it a pile of Ryland flags and poles. I walked up to read the writing on the flags and a jackrabbit ran off. Down Arboga Road, another subdivision by Lakemont Homes. Even the models had dead lawns.
I don't mean to pick on Plumas Lake. But some of it looked like a poster child for the consequences of risky lending. In many neighborhoods there is an overpowering feeling of abandonment and at the very least, neglect. I cannot remember anywhere - not in Lincoln nor Merced - seeing so many unkempt and unmowed lawns.
Lest I be accused of seeing the glass as half empty, I will say that the further south I went in Plumas Lake the better and more stable it seemed to get. I don't know if this is true, but I suspect these are the 2,000, 2001 and 2002 neighborhoods where people bought for $180,000 or less with 30-year loans. They looked a lot more stable than neighborhood where prices pushed past $300,000 at the peak of the boom and required adjustable-rate loans to buy.
One other thing I was struck by, driving and driving through these places, was that I had seen few parks. Not until I got farther south in Plumas Lake did I start seeing them routinely. Maybe I missed some farther north or maybe they haven't been finished yet.
The best part of the day was at the very south edge of Plumas Lake, a Cresleigh Home development called Plumas Ranch. It's relatively newer and seems to be attracting more retirees. I talked with a couple who moved there last year from Vacaville and since they don't have to commute anywhere - and neither do most of their neighbors - they are thrilled to be there and out of the rat race along Interstate 80.
I realize this might seem like a pretty negative review. But it's abundantly clear that some builders that went in there with big visions have - at least for now - abandoned them.
I have a lot more reporting to do on a story about this part of the region that is tentatively scheduled to run June 1. But first impressions tell me - and mind you, I haven't toured Southern California's Inland Empire since 2004 or parts of San Joaquin County that are always making news - that Yuba County's newest communities may well be some of the hardest hit in California.
I'd be very interested to hear some other opinions on this.