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Monday, Apr 15, 2024

SUBURBS—Santa Clarita: Urban Jungle?

irked by noise, traffic, longtime residents flee for smaller areas John and Patti Tohill are packing up and moving out. They’ve had it with the traffic, the crowds, the stress and anonymity of urban living. They want space, a view of something other than their neighbors’ backyard, and a community to call home. The lament echoes from Santa Monica to Sherman Oaks, but the Tohills aren’t talking about L.A. at all. They’re talking about Santa Clarita. “It’s ironic,” said Patti Tohill. “We moved from the San Fernando Valley to get out of the hectic pace, and moved out here because it was very rural, and now this is becoming what I remember the Valley to be.” It’s taken Newhall Land & Farming Co. 35 years to carve a complete, self-contained city from the huge expanse of land it first set out to develop in 1965. But the realization of the developer’s dream has shattered another one. The once-bucolic hillsides are now crisscrossed by major roads. Homes stand 10 feet apart. And shopping malls have popped up in place of farmland. Santa Clarita is still drawing new residents and businesses in large numbers. But some of its earliest residents, like the Tohills, are heading for higher ground, making their way to communities like Agua Dulce and Acton, 25 miles to the northeast. “Probably one-third of our clients come from Santa Clarita,” said Linda Kirk, whose company, Realty Executives, handles homes in the Acton and Agua Dulce areas in addition to the Santa Clarita Valley. “When I started working here (in Acton) in 1978, there were probably 500 houses. Now there’s about 1,200.” Urban character When Newhall Land first engaged Victor Gruen to design a city on the floor of the Santa Clarita Valley, the company hoped to build a community where people could live, work and play. That dream has come to pass. The Valencia area is the urban hub of the city of Santa Clarita, which also includes Newhall, Saugus and Canyon Country. Valencia alone boasts about 200,000 residents and 60,000 jobs. Some 800 companies have moved into the 4,500-acre commercial park called Valencia Gateway. There are two major shopping centers, movie theaters, health clubs, a golf course and hotel. Santa Clarita Valley’s five schools routinely place in the top 10 percent in the nation when it comes to academic performance, and the city of Santa Clarita has been ranked the fourth-safest in the nation. With migration continuing unabated, Newhall Land is now planning a new development of 21,000 homes just west of Valencia. But as newcomers continue to follow their bliss to Santa Clarita, the dream has gone bust for many others who came years ago in search of wide-open spaces. The earliest settlers have seen open space shrink and traffic worsen considerably. “I think we’re being overwhelmed by more building, which is causing more people and more traffic, which is causing our stress level to go up,” Patti Tohill said. “Cutting across Canyon Country, you can’t do that at 5 in the afternoon, and if there’s a traffic accident down Soledad (Canyon Road), forget it. Friday nights are the worst. Plan on leaving early because it is congested.” At the same time, land in Santa Clarita has grown scarce. The typical home there, with a median price of about $300,000, sits on a lot of 4,000 to 10,000 square feet. For some people, that’s simply not enough space. “People are coming to Acton because they want bigger pieces of property,” said Wendy Offshack, a broker with Century 21 Executives. Homes on an acre or more in Acton or Agua Dulce go for just a little more than much smaller homes in Santa Clarita. “We’re starting at $400,000 for a 3,200-square-foot house on a two-acre lot, and now we’re selling readily because the price for a similar house in Santa Clarita on a 6,000-foot lot which puts you 10 feet from your neighbor is $300,000 to $400,000,” said Roger Werbel, president of Werbco Construction Corp. He said Werbco has sold all 20 houses in the first two phases of its Sierra Colony Ranch development, which will include 56 homes when it’s completed. Wide open spaces Both Acton and Agua Dulce restrict building on less than one acre of land, and there are guidelines requiring setbacks of at least 50 feet, compared to 20 feet for Santa Clarita. “It’s a much more rural, estate feel,” said Joel McLafferty, president of Crescent Bay Land Co., which is currently developing about 350 acres in Acton. McLafferty points out that with the traffic congestion in Santa Clarita, homeowners commuting from Los Angeles can drive to Acton in the same amount of time and get more for their money. “The market has been good in Acton,” he said. It was land that brought Gail Ortiz, public information officer for the city of Santa Clarita, and her family to Acton last November. Escalating land prices made Ortiz’s dream of owning horse property unaffordable in Santa Clarita, but her own Santa Clarita home had also appreciated 26 percent since the early 1990s and she plowed her profits into property in Acton. Ortiz and her family members were attracted by the land prices in Acton. Others wanted to get away from the rapid population growth. “The people that arrived (in Santa Clarita) five or 10 years ago are saying, ‘I moved here because I didn’t want to have so many neighbors, and now look at all these people.'” Ortiz said. By comparison, Agua Dulce has about 3,500 residents, while the population of Acton is about 9,000. A total of about 2,000 students attend the five schools in the Acton/Agua Dulce Unified School District. “That’s like a private school,” said Sheila Cook, a broker with Century 21 Executives who moved from Agoura Hills in 1986. “That is a big plus for a lot of parents.” The towns are so small, in fact, that the Acton Chamber of Commerce sells bumper stickers that read, “Where the Hell Is Acton?” Welcome to Acton Acton has one traffic signal, a blinking light in front of the high school. Agua Dulce has none, but there are a handful of stop signs around town. There are no supermarkets, pharmacies or convenience stores in either town, but Acton has a grocery, Acton Market, and a butcher, Acton Meats, which will cook a roast for customers at no extra charge and have it ready in time for dinner if they call ahead. The same strip retail center houses a hair stylist, bank, post office, Chinese restaurant and real estate office. To find a chain store, discounter or supermarket, residents must travel 20 or 30 minutes. But they say they like it that way. “It’s close enough where we can enjoy the conveniences, yet we’ve got a little piece of heaven out here,” Tohill said.

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