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MOUNTAIN HOUSE, Calif. — Dan Marlar's commute grew 25 minutes this month, but the tradeoff was worth it to him: an affordable bungalow in America's first new city of the 21st century.

Right now, Marlar's home is one of only 200 in these sunburned hills 60 miles east of San Francisco. But within 20 years, Mountain House is projected to swell to 16,000 homes.

The people expected to move here, 44,000 eventually, will be searching for exactly what Marlar says he has found — a place to escape the sky-high cost of living in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A home in Mountain House starts at $360,000, while half the houses in the Bay Area sell for more than $550,000.

"I could maybe buy a condo for the same price as I purchased a new house," said Marlar, who gave up trying to find a home near his land surveying job, "but it would be run down and you'd have to do maintenance to get it up to date."

Affordable housing has become such an issue in California that another new town, Centennial, is being planned for 70,000 people 60 miles north of Los Angeles.

The last new U.S. town was Celebration, Fla., founded in 1996 by the Walt Disney Co. It followed a long line of new towns that have matured and are now considered established — Irvine and Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.; Reston, Va.; Columbia, Md.; and Woodlands, Texas.

Mountain House, named for a Gold Rush way station between San Francisco and the Sierra gold fields, is not a suburb, stressed Duane Grimsman, the project's general manager.

"It's starting a new town from scratch," he said.

Developer Trimark Communities promises that Mountain House, 16 years in the making, will eventually have every amenity, including fiber optic lines for every house and a start-from-scratch downtown to replicate the Main Streets of old. Trimark officials expect Mountain House to formally incorporate as a city within a decade.

Mountain House appeals to Central Valley residents Raman Kailey, 25, and his wife, Rajbir Kaur, 24, on two counts: more reasonable real estate costs and a commute time cut in half for Kailey, who now drives 150 miles round-trip to his Bay Area insurance job.

Said Kaur, a university student, simply: "I think this is a good time to buy a house."

Cristen Mason, 28, and his 26-year-old schoolteacher wife, Kristina, too are eyeing Mountain House for affordability. Anywhere near Mason's bartending job in Union City is just out of question when it comes to price.

"To save the $100,000," Mason said, "you might have to travel the extra 20 minutes."

It's the eagerness of the Masons and Kailey and Kaur that distresses environmentalists, who fear sprawl and traffic will raise their ugly heads just as they have with nearby commuter towns.

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