Where County’s Biggest Bucks Go Home : In Cowan Heights, Space, Rural Life, Schools Lure Rich

Times Staff Writer

Forget Balboa, Big Canyon and Laguna Beach. You thought Nellie Gail Ranch was pricey? Hah!

Here in Orange County, home to some of the most expensive homes in America, the wealthiest enclave is Cowan Heights--a community with no freeway off-ramp, no fast-food joints, no banks, no apartments, no mall .

Cowan what , you say? Expect me to believe a place that sounds like a bovine is home to some of the most filthy rich people around?

Well, let’s put it this way: Are any of your neighbors building a lake behind their 36,000-square-foot home so their kids can water-ski in the back yard?


Tucked into the hills northeast of Tustin and south of Orange, Cowan Heights, as the richest neighborhood in the county, is also perhaps one of the best-kept secrets around. Even some of the 10,400 residents of this picturesque unincorporated community are surprised to learn t1751217196 Coming in a close second, according to the National Planning Data Corp., which studied census tracts for The Times Orange County Edition, is the Aliso Viejo/Laguna Niguel area, whose 3,000 households boast a median income of $117,260. Poor old Big Canyon, a tony Newport Beach community, ranked only third at $111,792.

Named after oilman and developer Walter Cowan, who bought an 800-acre walnut, cattle and citrus ranch here in 1942, Cowan Heights is horse country, though there are no public stables anymore. Yes, there are Mercedes-Benz convertibles in Foothill High School’s parking lot and Jags on the street. With only a few exceptions, however, Cowan Heights is decidedly not ostentatious. In fact, everything but the homes themselves are low key.

There is only one grocery, Irvine Ranch Farmers Market. Smokers had to drive out of town for tobacco until recently, when the community acquiesced to a single convenience store. Older neighborhoods still have no sidewalks. It is pastoral and quiet and lovely, which is precisely why the 10,400 residents seem to like it.

“I think people like it here because it’s a dead end,” said real estate saleswoman Jackie Valle, whose office is at the northern end of Cowan Heights. “You really have to go back out the way you came in. You don’t come here on your way to somewhere else. So there isn’t a lot of traffic.

“I think the wooded, rural aspects of it are part of the appeal. And yet it’s convenient. . . . And it really has sort of a small-town feeling.”

“We wanted the view,” said Cheryl Sive, 29, who lives with her husband, Jonathan, 28, and 3-year-old son, Jonathan Jr., in the gated Rocking Horse Ridge Chateau Country tract at the northern edge of Cowan Heights. The back yard of their 3,000-square-foot home affords an ocean view by day and a panorama of city lights after dark.

“We thought about the beach,” she said, “but you have no privacy there, and the traffic and parking are horrible. It’s peaceful here.”

On a clear day the view from hilltop homes is indeed spectacular. You can see Santa Catalina and San Clemente islands, Mt. Wilson and Los Angeles. Residents live on and around green open hills and canyons, their kids go to some of the best schools around, and on a good day, they are only a 15-minute drive to the malls and the Performing Arts Center.

“I think we’re the best-kept secret in Orange County,” said Sharon Thompson, who for 14 years has lived with her three daughters and her husband, a real estate syndicator, in Cowan Heights. “Parts of the south county are beautiful, but people can’t get in and out of there. All they have is the 405 (San Diego Freeway), which is a mess. Down in Mission Viejo and other parts, they are trying to master-plan what we already have here. Nobody wants to leave this.”

As a result, Thompson said, many people would rather renovate older Cowan Heights homes, or build room additions, than move away.

“Where would we move to?” Thompson, 45, asked rhetorically. She looked out her den windows, past her royal-blue-tiled swimming pool, at the bucolic landscape of hills surrounding her home. “We’ve moved three times in the past 14 years, each time to another home in Cowan Heights.”

She called it a “real low-profile area. I’m just stunned to find we hit the map finally.”

Indeed, Cowan Heights has been the richest neighborhood in the county for some time--since 1980, according to National Planning. Seventy-two percent of the 3,073 households earn more than $75,000 a year. Another 13% of the households earn $50,000 to $70,000. A vast majority of the population, which is 91% white, is employed as executives, professionals or managers, 1980 U.S. Census data shows.

An overwhelming majority of Cowan Heights residents have college degrees. Not surprisingly, education is among the primary reasons they moved to the rural haven, where Orange Unified and Tustin Unified school districts share the student population. Both districts are highly regarded, with student test scores always rating among the highest in the county.

Most children attend public versus private schools, according to James A. Ryan, principal of 1,450-student Foothill High School. Foothill’s team placed second this year in the Orange County Academic Decathlon, Ryan said, and it usually places in the top three.

“If you want a distinction as to what is different here,. . . it’s the affluency and the wherewithal of the community to provide experiences for their youngsters,” he said, “going on vacations, travel, magazines” and exposure to things that other children don’t have.

“So they come to school with a certain amount of sophistication and understanding of their environment . . . a world view of things, and they get this almost from osmosis.”

“There is a lot of parent involvement,” added Ryan, who spent Thursday morning at one of his bimonthly coffees with parents.

Although he cannot afford to live in Cowan Heights, Ryan said, he believes that those who do are “comfortable enough with their affluency that they don’t have to show it.”

For resident Joan Smith, who lives in the gated community of Rocking Horse Ridge Estates, Newport Beach, Seal Beach and parts of the south county were quickly ruled out because of space.

“I can’t stand Irvine with all the little houses in a row,” said Smith, whose spacious hilltop home includes a back yard with privacy and space. “It’s quiet up here.”

Many Cowan Heights residents said many of them can afford the outback bliss only on two incomes. Although such statistics were not immediately available, residents such as the Sives said their neighborhoods empty out each weekday as workers drive out to their jobs.

Cheryl Sive worked even after her son was born 3 years ago. Eventually she decided that she could afford to stay home.

“I had these visions of being June Cleaver, with all of Beaver’s friends on the street coming over to visit, and talking over the back-yard fence,” Sive said, laughing. “Now I’ve got to join ‘Mommy and Me’ classes to see anybody during the daytime. Everybody on my street goes to work.”

The Sives cherish their back-yard view and the orange sunsets that reflect off the ocean on a late summer afternoon.

Home prices vary dramatically, from a $250,000 “dog,” as one real estate agent put it, to that of Michael DeAngelo, owner of Anaheim-based ClothesTime Inc. At 36,000 square feet, DeAngelo’s $25-million home is believed to be the largest in Orange County.

As if an acre of swimming pools--one exclusively for aquatic volleyball--were not enough, DeAngelo intends to build a lake at the rear of his 23-acre estate for his children to ski, said Lorraine Lopiccola, DeAngelo’s business manager.

“I think he just happened to be drawn to the house,” she said, “and it just happened to be located at Cowan Heights.”


Cowan Heights $120,096

Aliso Viejo/Laguna Niguel 117,260

Big Canyon (Newport Beach) 111,792

Corona del Mar 109,806

Lemon Heights 108,901

Northern Villa Park 106,009

Anaheim Hills 104,874

Laguna Hills 103,605

Huntington Harbour 98,715

Newport Center (Newport Beach) 94,318

Note: Areas are census tracts that may vary from traditional neighborhood boundaries.

Source: National Planning Data Corp. Times staff writer Mark Landsbaum contributed to this report. COWAN HEIGHTS AT A GLANCE


1980-88 change: +39%

Median Age: 39.9 years

Racial/ethnic mix: White (non-Latino), 91%; Latino, 4%; Black, less than 1%; Other, 5%


Per capita: $37,467

Average Household: $129,879

Household Distribution: Less than $25,000 , 5%; $25,000 -- $49,000 , 10%; $50,000 -- $74,999 , 13%; More than $75,000 , 72%