From Tustin, a drive north on Newport Avenue and a right turn on Foothill Boulevard will lead past one of the area's last lemon groves. There the road begins to narrow and climb, and houses can be spied behind gates or down garden paths. Peacocks can sometimes be heard. This is Lemon Heights.
"It's a community more than anything," said Joe Hunt, a supervisor with the county's Geomatics/Land Information Systems. Of the 800 square miles that make up Orange County, 288 square miles lie in what is referred to as unincorporated North Tustin. Of that, Hunt estimated two square miles make up Lemon Heights.
"Lemon Heights was desert-like until C.E. Utt and James Irvine developed it around the '20s," said Carol H. Jordan, a Tustin historian. At that time, the hilly area was part of the Irvine Ranch. Utt owned the Utt Juice Co. at the corner of Main Street and Prospect Avenue. "They planted lemon trees and eucalyptus trees and piped water up there so it could be subdivided."
The hilly enclave emerged as an extension of the agricultural community that settled the area. It shared a nebulous northern border with southern Cowan Heights, another community in the unincorporated area.
Longtime resident Barbara Hannegan and her husband bought a home on Smokewood Drive in 1970. The four-bedroom, custom '60s modern ranch sold then for $60,000.
"People built on the edge of nothing," Hannegan said. "They wanted to be up in the heights. Everybody else was a 'flatlander.' "
Today Lemon Heights attracts people eager to buy a piece of old California, even if their 200-degree view is of new construction in surrounding Tustin, Orange, Irvine and Santa Ana. The housing stock of about 1,000 homes includes seven original landmark estates built 100 years ago by the judges, politicians and business owners who founded the Tustin area.
Houses are priced from about $900,000 to $5 million, said Melinda Queathen of Seven Gables Real Estate. Many of the custom homes are on large lots with panoramic views. Some have one-acre lots or larger with facilities for horses. Buyers sometimes tear down older homes and erect new ones with swimming pools and tennis courts.
Jim Cruickshank of Seven Gables pegged the median price for a home in Lemon Heights at $1.5 million.
"These are mostly all custom homes," he said, and include California Mission, Craftsman, French Country and Victorian, with more contemporary semi-custom homes as well.
Good news, bad news
New development sometimes causes tension among neighbors. One resident built a helicopter pad; another a Mediterranean-ish villa with a fat red-brick wall around it.