If you think the increasingly urbanized area near the Los Angeles-Ventura county line seems an unlikely spot for sprawling ranches set amid rolling green meadows, then Hidden Valley has passed you by.
And that's just fine with the several hundred residents of Hidden Valley, tucked into a 7.8-square-mile area just south of Thousand Oaks. In many cases, they came to Hidden Valley to be passed by.
"Hidden Valley is the only place within 50 miles of Los Angeles City Hall that has that Old World charm," said William Ransom, 68, a retired real estate broker and president of the area's homeowners association.
"I can ride from here to the ocean. It's fantastic," Ransom said.
And although some longtime residents say it's not as secluded as it used to be, the tranquil life style of Hidden Valley continues to lure many of America's wealthy, from entertainers to businessmen and from politicians to plastic surgeons.
It has been home to celebrities Sophia Loren and Richard Widmark. Donna Summer and her husband recently moved there. Actors Dean Martin and Alan Ladd used to own ranches there.
Businessmen Tex Thornton and Roy L. Ash, founders of Litton Industries, have lived there. David Murdock, a multimillionaire developer and member of President Reagan's Kitchen Cabinet, owns the area's largest ranch. Robert Nesen, U.S. ambassador to Australia, raises cattle there. California's former lieutenant governor, Mike Curb, is also a resident.
A leisurely drive down Potrero Road reveals the attraction of Hidden Valley.
At the entrance to the valley near the east end of Lake Sherwood is Ventura Farms, the 1,300-acre ranch owned by Murdock. The property is surrounded by rows of white picket fences that appear to be wood but are actually plastic.
Potrero is bordered by evergreen, eucalyptus and oak trees. At one point, the road swerves slightly to avoid a six-foot-thick oak pushing precariously at the asphalt.
Farther on, cows lazily munch green grass and soak in the warm sun. Potrero then shifts to a north-south direction. Stephanie Schimmel of Thousand Oaks, who jogs on that stretch, said: "There's not too much traffic out here, so you have time to think about things like, Why do I love to jog?' "
Potrero soon becomes an east-west route again where several horse ranches, including Blakiston Ranch and Flying B Farms, are located. Here on the west end of the valley are new estate-type homes, many of which have no ranching operations.
The estate homes are an example of how Hidden Valley has experienced some development, although at a much slower pace than its rapidly growing neighbor to the north, the Conejo Valley.
Hidden Valley was once the property of Spanish land grantees, who called it Potrero, or Pasture, Valley. Later called Hidden Valley, the area was mainly used for sheep grazing in the mid- to late-1800s.
A portion of the valley later became part of the Las Turis Club, an exclusive summer resort where the wealthy could enjoy polo and golf or swim in nearby Lake Sherwood, according to Thousand Oaks historian Pat Allen.
Over the years, the small number of valley landowners increased as they subdivided their property into smaller and smaller parcels. There are now 36 ranches ranging in size from 20 to 1,300 acres. The few large ranches continue to be split up, with the resulting subdivisions priced at from $1 million to $7 million.
"It's a nice, quiet place, but it's getting busier," said patent lawyer Warren Jessup, who owns a 20-acre ranch where he raises horses. "There's more and more houses going up."
That disturbs the "matriarch" of Hidden Valley, 85-year-old Elinore French, who has lived in the area since 1924. "I think it's getting crowded with all these corrals and fences," she said.
She said she feels increasingly hemmed in by new subdivisions and can remember the days when she and her late husband, Leigh, owned a third of the valley.
"It was so beautiful," French recalled. "There was no electricity, no phones. The water came from natural springs. We built our house from scratch. The oak trees were so gorgeous, and we loved it.
'Everything Is Fenced In'
"Now, everything is fenced in," she said. "The more people that come in, the more fences that go up. Why, there are so many white fences, I feel like I'm in a stockyard."
Rick Principe, co-owner of Westoaks Realty Co., said he moved to the valley to build an estate-type home when he bought a 21-acre parcel seven years ago. He has since added tennis courts, a swimming pool and stable.
"There are two types of people coming in," Principe, 41, said. "One category are those coming in to start horse operations. The others are converting the land into estates. . . . They are tearing down the old houses and building huge homes.
"I think that's kind of neat. I think it has upgraded the valley considerably."
Ransom, the homeowners association president, said there is a very quiet camaraderie among residents, but not much interaction. "I think everybody moved here to get away from socializing," he said.
Hidden Valley residents are generally wealthy, but riches are not flaunted. More dirty pickup trucks traverse Potrero Road than Rolls-Royces. While many homes are expensive, the structures appear simple and comfortable, not flashy or opulent.
Few controversies erupt in the valley, but when they do, they tend to be small annoyances, according to Ventura County Supervisor Edwin A. Jones, who represents the area. In the past few years, the only event worthy of a quickening pulse was a drug raid at an area ranch house in late 1981.
Cattle raising was the dominant industry among valley ranchers for decades, Ransom said, but now the business of breeding and boarding horses, from appaloosas to quarter horses, is beginning to predominate.
Hidden Valley residents say they are not worried about a recently announced plan to develop Lake Sherwood on the valley's east end. They say they feel the plans won't have an adverse impact on the valley or lead to development.
Residents point out that the person planning to develop Lake Sherwood is Murdock, whose sprawling ranch is adjacent to the lake. He recently bought the lake and surrounding land.
Confident of what they see as Murdock's solid reputation as a developer, the residents say they are sure he will not scar an area that is next door to his own property.
Additionally, zoning regulations and the area's general plan limit subdivision parcels to a minimum of 20 acres, Jones said.
But a third reason cited by homeowners as a deterrent to development is based on misinformation, according to a Ventura County official.
Several residents contended that the Hidden Valley Municipal Water District was set up in a way that prevents other water districts from annexing the area and opening it up to development.
But Bob Braitman, executive officer of the county's Local Agency Formation Commission, said a landowner who received his panel's approval could break from the Hidden Valley district and develop land with water from a neighboring district.
Braitman said, however, that the commission probably would disapprove such a move and the county Board of Supervisors is not likely to allow heavy development in the area.