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Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News
Melanie Martin, left, talks recently with clients Lynda and Gene French about The Ledges, a new development on the hills above Snow Canyon outside of St. George.

ST. GEORGE — Allan Carter will never forget the night he went back to the future.

It was August 1971 and Carter, a Brigham Young University student at the time, remembers dreaming that he was standing at the intersection of 300 West and St. George Boulevard in downtown St. George, looking across his native city and marveling at what he saw.

"I could see homes as far as I could see," Carter said. "Thousands of homes."

Back then, Washington County's population of 14,000 was roughly one-tenth of its current size. St. George was viewed as little more than a dusty stopover between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. There were no gated communities, no million-dollar homes and certainly no traffic jams.

But the city was about to shake off its small-time status. And for Carter, whose dream convinced him to quit college and take over his father's St. George-based title company, the timing could not have been better.

Today, Washington County is the fastest-growing county in the state. With a growth rate of 8 percent for the 12 months ended June 30, 2005, the county ranks as the nation's fifth-fastest growing county, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

And this is no dream.

Land speculators, a wave of retiring baby boomers and second-home buyers are fueling the biggest real estate rush in the county's history, according to a report commissioned by the Deseret Morning News and prepared by James Wood, director of the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

"In absolute terms there has been no period like the past three years in Washington County history," Wood said. "It's a frenzy. That's all anyone talks about is housing prices and how much money they have made."

Upscale gated communities like Entrada, Northbridge Estates, Stone Cliff and The Ledges offer million-dollar views with million-dollar price tags.

In less than 25 years, more people will live in Washington County than in Weber County, according to the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget. By 2038, more than 600,000 people will live in Washington County, outnumbering those living in Davis County, according to Carter, who believes the state's population projections are too conservative.

Carter may be right.

In 2005, more residential building permits were issued in St. George than in any other Utah city, Wood said. About one in every seven new residential units built in Utah in 2005 was in Washington County, and that figure was one of every six in 2004.

Such explosive growth has caught the attention of Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett and Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson, who last week unveiled The Washington County Growth & Conservation Act of 2006. It would create a comprehensive plan for managing public lands in Washington County and preserve more than 219,000 acres in and near Zion National Park as wilderness.

Highlights of the proposal include selling around 25,000 acres of public land and using 15 percent of the proceeds for public education, water projects and fire and flood protection. The other 85 percent would be earmarked to preserve historic rangeland and vital watersheds, buy more land to protect endangered species and improve conservation efforts on numerous projects throughout the county.

All of which is designed to help manage growth for both longtime residents and newcomers, many of whom are no strangers to the Beehive State.

Perhaps surprisingly, roughly 51 percent of Washington County buyers in 2005 were from Utah, snowbirds seeking an escape from the long winter of the state's northern half, according to Southern Utah Title Co. Next were Californians, who made up 26 percent of all transactions. Nevada came in third at 10 percent, with other states making up 13 percent.

They are people like Rocky Burt, 55, a former program analyst for the state of Alaska, who retired to Washington County three years ago after vacationing at Zion National Park.

In March, Burt and his wife moved into a new 3,700-square-foot home in Washington city. He said the $1.2 million home, complete with 22-foot-high ceilings, automated blinds, a courtyard, outdoor kitchen and two waterfalls, is a bargain compared to similar properties in Pismo Beach, Calif., where they originally looked to retire.

"We found the values here — especially for the quality of construction and what you get for your money here — to be far superior as to what you can get in California," Burt said. "We think we made the best choice."

About 80 percent of Washington County's growth comes from such in-migration, Wood said. In 2005, net in-migration for the county totaled 8,300 people. Only Salt Lake and Utah counties had more.

Mike Thomas, 58, of Budd Lake, N.J., purchased a building lot two years ago for $112,000 in Foremaster Ridge, which sits on East Bluff above the Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George.

Today, that same lot would sell for about $230,000, according to Doug Rogers, co-developer of the subdivision. Lots in the subdivision's newest phase are now selling for $340,000, with homes in the neighborhood valued as high as $2 million.

"We are probably 20 to 30 percent cheaper than the average view lot around the county," Rogers said. "I'm sure that over the next six months there could be some price raising. Any lot that is bought right now, my guess would be that they'll gain 20 to 30 percent over the next one to three years."

Soaring property values have made millions of dollars for people smart enough to buy at the right price and sell at the right time, according to Stephen Wade, who moved from Salt Lake City to St. George 14 years ago after purchasing a financially distressed car dealership.

Today, Wade owns five automobile franchises, six motorcycle franchises and the local television station. He also co-founded a local bank and is chairman of the board for Dixie State College.

"I look at some people here in St. George, and it's phenomenal what they've done with real estate," Wade said. "There is a certain element about real estate deals that is like gambling. It gets under your skin, and you want to do it. There is a frenzy that comes with it. You get excited as you do things."

Wade should know. He has made a small fortune from several of his own real estate deals. Currently, Wade and five other partners are developing a 20-acre piece of ground known as River Road Development, which will include restaurants, offices, a bank, hotel and a bridal shop.

"This whole region is on fire," Wade said. "It's not just St. George."

Yet it is St. George's lush golf courses, red-rock cliffs, vast recreational possibilities and proximity to national parks, monuments and Las Vegas that are attracting what Wood refers to as "equity refugees."

"That's what they call these people from California and Nevada," Wood said. "They bought a home in 1975 in Santa Monica for $110,000. It's now worth $800,000. They've paid it off. What they plan on doing is taking the money out and retiring."

Many equity refugees moving to Washington County are baby boomers, those born from 1946 to 1964. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 78.2 million baby boomers in the United States. And while only 23 percent of Utah's population is comprised of baby boomers, their numbers here are projected to grow.

Between 2005 and 2010 the number of Utahns over age 60 will grow twice as fast as those under 60, according to Wood, who added that boomers from California, Nevada and Arizona are now crucial to Washington County's market.

"I feel the wave has just begun as far as baby boomers moving to St. George," Burt said. "With the lifestyle and the prices, I just feel it's a great value that's really going to expand as the baby boomers retire. They are coming here from all over the country, and they are willing to dump a lot of money in here."

In 2004, about 55 percent of people in Washington County applying for Utah drivers' licenses were new residents from California, Nevada and Arizona.

"Every state except Massachusetts was represented," Wood said. "As baby boom demographics have converged with equity refugees and low interest rates, Sun Belt communities have benefited."

And with sustained economic fundamentals like job growth, in-migration and low interest rates, Wood believes the rush to Utah's Dixie is likely to continue. "It might plateau," Wood said, "but it's going to stay strong."

It's like something out of Carter's dream, as is the growth of his own company, which now employs 125 people.

"The dream convinced me that my spot was not in graduating but in coming to St. George," said Carter, 57.

"If you were here today, you would see a miracle. What's made it great is for me to look around and see my friends and my neighbors and realize that most of them had no connection to southern Utah."

Contributing: Nancy Perkins

E-mail: danderton@desnews.com