By Whatever Name, Its Popularity Grows : New residents flock to a place known as Rancho California, or is it Temecula?

<i> Jeanne Boyer is a Riverside free-lance writer. </i>

When Norm Achen founded the Greater Temecula Croquet Society, he used the historic name of the southwestern Riverside County community.

But when local riders organized the Rancho California Horsemen Assn., they chose the name of the real estate development where many people lived.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Aug. 20, 1989 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 20, 1989 Home Edition Real Estate Part 8 Page 4 Column 1 Real Estate Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Library funds--An Aug. 13 story on the Rancho California/Temecula area incorrectly reported that the Friends of the Rancho California Library had raised more than $500,000 for a new library. The money was raised by the Library Building Foundation, which includes some members of the library friends.

By the time Duane Lewis opened his business last September, he didn’t want to offend advocates of either name, so he called it Rancho Temecula Tax and Bookkeeping Service.

Over at Temecula Valley Pipe & Supply, owners Richard and Lael Hall chose a regional name to attract customers from an even broader area.


Come November, residents will choose one of the four names when they vote whether to incorporate. But by whatever name it’s called, the area is one of Southern California’s fastest growing communities.

Relatively Affordable

That’s because housing is still relatively affordable, compared to Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, and the location enables it to draw buyers from the coastal counties as well as the Riverside-San Bernardino area, said Steve Johnson, a vice president of the Meyers Group research firm. Tract home prices range from $95,000 to $251,900.

Affordable housing and a country atmosphere have helped push the population from about 8,000 in 1980 to nearly 30,000 today, the Temecula Valley Chamber of Commerce estimates. The community now gains about 10,000 residents a year, despite the confusion about what to call the place.

Some locals cope with the identity crisis by using two names. The Temecula Valley Chamber of Commerce is also listed as Rancho California Chamber of Commerce in the phone book. As accountant Lewis noted, newcomers don’t know where Temecula is, and old-time Temeculans are offended if you call their home by another name.

The chamber’s general manager, Perry Peters, said the organization won’t change its name whatever the vote, because members hail from nearby communities as well. Peters diplomatically declined to state his preference, but said surveys indicate one of the Temecula choices will win.

The Temecula faction is certainly the most outspoken. Best not to even whisper “Rancho California” in the heart of old Temecula, where signs ask: “Temecula--A Great Name for Over 200 Years--Why Change It?”

No ‘True History’

Temeculans are irritated that the issue is even on the ballot.

“People are being told this is Rancho California,” said Tony Tobin, curator of the local museum. “They’re not being given the true history of the area.”

Temecula has plenty of history, Tobin happily explains to museum visitors as he sits near a map with the offensive words “Rancho California” scratched out.

Legend has it that Indian chief Nahachish named the valley Temecula, which means “sunlight through the mist.”

Eventually, Spaniards discovered the valley and cultivated grain for Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, using Indian workers.

However, the Temecula Indians were evicted from their lands in 1875 by American settlers, an event dramatized by Helen Hunt Jackson in her 1884 novel, “Ramona.” The story of the ill-fated Indian sweethearts Alessandro and Ramona was based on stories Jackson heard when she visited the area in 1882.

Other authors have also been drawn to the picturesque countryside. Erle Stanley Gardner wrote dozens of Perry Mason mysteries at Rancho del Paisano, his Temecula home.

Surviving Buildings

Walking down Old Town Temecula’s wooden sidewalks, it takes only a little imagination to step back in time.

Many of the buildings have survived the better part of a century, although they’ve been through a few changes. The Temecula Jail is an art gallery, the First National Bank of Temecula is a Mexican restaurant and the old Ramona Inn houses the Corner Deli and other businesses.

The Hotel Temecula is a private home. Horace and Leverne Parker bought the place in 1960 when it was a run-down, dollar-a-night hostelry. “It wasn’t worth more than that,” Leverne Parked joked, before the couple restored its 1890s charm.

The 104-year-old brick Temecula Mercantile building shelters several of the town’s many antique dealers. Hungry shoppers stop at the Swing Inn Cafe, which has been serving generous portions of down-home cooking for 60 years.

Some people call old Temecula quaint. Others, like county redevelopment officials, call it blighted.

‘We’re Not Blighted’

Although county Supervisor Walt Abraham said redevelopment will not disturb Temecula’s historic district and could help finance various improvements, the Save Historic Old Temecula group is suing to stop it.

“We’re not blighted,” said Howard Raish, 71. He said many long-time residents distrust government interference and don’t want curbs and sewers and so-called modern improvements.

“We’ve got an old, old town here and we want to leave it this way,” said Margaret Ramsay, 76, whose forebears moved to the area in the 1890s.

Development came to the area relatively late. Most of the area was home to herds of cattle until 1964, when Mahlon Vail sold his family’s huge ranch to a unit of Oakland-based Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Co.

Kaiser dubbed the area “Rancho California,” and devised a master-planned community where people could live, work and play on a total of 97,500 acres. Although Kaiser sold out to Northern California-based Bedford Properties in 1986, the master plan and accompanying deed restrictions are still in place.

Moved 14 Years Ago

Real estate brokers credit the plan for preserving much of the area’s rural quality despite rapid growth. Zoning maintains 5- and 10-acre “ranchettes” along with higher-density development. Large commercial and industrial areas are clustered along Interstate 15, while housing is located farther from the freeway.

Pia Oliver, co-owner of INCO Commercial Brokerage, moved to the area 14 years ago from Tustin. She was driving to San Diego as morning dawned over the countryside.

“The sun was gorgeous,” Oliver said. “It was love at first sight.” She came back next weekend and bought property.

Selma Lesser made an even quicker decision. Although the former Sherman Oaks resident had stopped many times in Temecula for a bite to eat, she didn’t really see the surrounding landscape until May, 1988, when she took a balloon ride.

“It was exquisite,” Lesser, 70, said. She was enchanted by the orchards and fields of poppies below, visible as the sun rose over fog-draped Temecula. Despite an abrupt ending when the balloon was caught in a down draft and came to rest in an oak tree, Lesser was impressed enough to visit a real estate office that afternoon.

She spotted an advertisement for a small ranch, “an hour later I made an offer, and now I’m living here.”

Hot-Air Balloons

Hot-air balloon rides are offered year-round by several commercial aeronauts, and each spring the chamber sponsors a Rancho California Balloon and Wine Festival, held this year at nearby Lake Skinner County Park.

Charles and Charlene Neal were captivated by a view of the lake when they found their 5 acres in the adjacent hills. “We had an overwhelming feeling that this is where it’s at,” Charlene Neal, 52, said. The couple decided to move from Laguna Niguel, bringing their investment counseling business with them.

The Neals are now moving into their 7,200-square-foot custom-built “castle,” with its mini-moat and medieval architecture. They plan to plant wine grapes for their private label, Char de Neal.

Those who don’t want to grow their own can take the wine tour, sampling local vintages at the 11 Temecula wineries. Several offer gourmet dining to showcase their wines.

Volunteering at the wine festival helped Joyce Scully meet people after she moved from San Diego County in 1987.

Library Business Brisk

“It was so easy to get involved in this town,” she said. Two years later, Scully is president of Friends of the Rancho California Library. Friends raised more than $500,000 for a new library, scheduled to open in 1990.

Demand is brisk at the current library, where about 500 new cards are issued each month, said branch head Rosie Vanderhaak. The library is squeezed into a 1,900-square-foot storefront that is smaller than many area homes.

“People go out there to get a bigger house on a bigger piece of land,” said housing consultant Sanford Goodkin of KPMG Peat Marwick/Goodkin Real Estate Consulting Group. “It’s not just affordability, it’s a life style change.” So many people are looking for that life style that 10,000 homes are under construction, he said.

Among the 29 builders with area projects are Costain, Woodcrest Development, Griffin Homes, Buie Corp., Kulberg Ltd. and Mesa Homes, Johnson said. Most new homes that come on the market sell almost immediately, as do the few resale houses available.

Home Prices Increase

Now that the median-priced home has reached $171,990, demand for apartments is increasing. A market for townhouses may also develop as fewer people can afford to buy detached homes. Still, only about 14% of housing units are apartments, compared to 25% in most cities, Johnson said. Existing apartments rent from $400 to $700 a month and have a 93% occupancy rate.

Home prices increase about $10,000 every quarter, Johnson said, although homes keep getting larger too, with the median-sized house 1,948 square feet.

Not only do buyers get more house for their money, but the quality of life is more appealing also.

Residents brag about the ocean breezes that keep the area cooler and less smoggy than other inland locales. “We call them the ‘Temecula trade winds’ ” said developer Bill Johnson.

The breezes flow through Rainbow Gap in the coastal mountains, because Temecula is only about 20 miles from the ocean, as the crow flies. But motorists must take much longer routes on existing highways.

Proposed Toll Road

However, a group that includes Johnson, Bedford and Temecula’s RANPAC Engineering Corp. has plans to build a private toll road to the coast. If it’s approved, Johnson said plenty of people would pay $3 or $4 to slice their Orange County commute in half.

The proposed road and housing projects planned by Johnson and RANPAC owner Won Yoo for the scenic Santa Rosa Plateau worry some residents, who want its oak trees and grasslands preserved as a county or state park.

Preserve Our Plateau organizers want to add about 5,000 acres to 3,000 already owned by the Nature Conservancy, said Pete Dangermond, a Sacramento consultant hired by POP.

“There’s more to life than wall-to-wall subdivisions,” he said. “I don’t think anybody living there or moving there wants to see it all built up.”

Part of the Conservancy property is home to the Dorland Mountain Colony, a retreat for writers and artists. Only a few primitive cottages intrude on “the magical forest feeling,” said spokeswoman Debbie Forbes. Dorland devotees hope to establish a buffer zone if development occurs, so their forest can maintain its tranquility.

Moving to ‘Shangri-La’

The area’s peace and quiet attracted former Huntington Beach resident Bob Crain, who bought investment property in 1978 and moved permanently in 1987. Now so many Orange County residents are arriving that he’s ready to move from his Temecula house to his avocado ranch--"my Shangri-La"--a few miles farther out.

“Five years ago, Rancho California’s growth was largely influenced by San Diego County,” said Mark Smith, a consultant with Goodkin’s real estate group. “Today there’s a shift from San Diego County to Orange County and even Los Angeles County. Most demand now is from the north.”

Completion of Interstate 15 has made the area more accessible to “equity refugees,” looking to escape congestion elsewhere, Smith said.

Meyers Group figures show that about 40% of new residents still come from San Diego County, with 35% from Orange County, 20% from Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and 5% from Los Angeles County and other areas.

Many of the new arrivals are move-up buyers rather than first-time homeowners. These “gentleman ranchers” are attracted by oak-covered hills that overlook acres of avocados, citrus, vineyards and horse farms.

Congestion Is Terrible

They can afford 5 acres with proceeds from their higher-priced Orange County home and start a business with the money left over, accountant Lewis said. “They think they’ve reached paradise, and probably they have.

If there’s a problem in paradise, it’s the traffic. Even the area’s most ardent fans admit congestion is terrible.

Traffic is one reason most residents favor incorporation, chamber manager Peters said. By incorporating, the new city will get a bigger share of area tax dollars, and residents hope local control will enable them to hasten planned street improvements.

Besides improved roads, people need better police protection and recreation services, Peters said. Especially more parks.

As open space disappears, residents are having a hard enough time finding a place to hold the traditional Great Temecula Tractor Race. Started 13 years ago with a bet between two tractor owners, this fall the race will have three days of mud-filled competition plus other entertainment, said Evelyn Harker, Temecula Town Assn. executive secretary. “We’re all hoping to find a permanent place to have it,” she said.

Equestrian Needs

An arena is also needed for equestrian activities, with so many horse owners in the area, said Gail McCreight, treasurer of the 140-member Rancho California Horsemen Assn.

Of course, for real recreation there’s the croquet society (now combined with jazz aficionados to form the Croq-Jazz Alliance, so members can listen to Dixieland while playing croquet and sipping fine wine).

The life style is so good it’s bound to keep attracting more people to the area, which increases demand for city-type services, said Cityhood Committee Chairman Jimmy Moore, a business consultant who left Orange County three years ago.

Organizers originally wanted to encompass 79 square miles, including nearby Murrieta. However, county officials whittled the proposed city down to 26 square miles after Murrieta residents launched a separate incorporation attempt.

Several developers who already had county approval for projects also asked to have their housing tracts excluded, although they could eventually be annexed by the new city, especially if Murrieta’s effort fails, Moore said.

Although it has certain advantages, incorporation won’t be an immediate panacea, said Joan Sparkman, school board president. It could take several years to accomplish cityhood goals, said Sparkman, a 20-year resident.

Out-of-Town Jobs

Attracting more industry will be especially important, said Sparkman, 54, vice president and regional director of Torrey Pines Bank. Although new residents initially keep driving to jobs where they used to live, eventually they balk.

“We have a very good labor force here ready to give up commuting,” she said. About 62% of workers have out-of-town jobs.

Commuting parents appreciate before-and-after-school child care provided by the YMCA at elementary schools in the Temecula Unified District, she said.

The area also has several private schools, and adult classes offered by UC Riverside and Mt. San Jacinto Community College. Sparkman and others helped bring the UCR Extension center to town last year, which they hope will promote more educational and cultural activities.

Considering the area’s attributes, consultant Goodkin describes it as a “young Irvine,” in terms of potential. “All it needs is a strategy to attract employment and keep affordability,” he said. “Rancho California has the chance to do it all.”

Whatever they decide to call it.

AT A GLANCE Population

1989 estimate: 29,000

1980-89 change: 248%

Median age: 37 years

Racial/ethnic mix

White (non-Latino): 83.3%

Latino: 13.3%

Black: 0.2%

Other: 3.2%

Annual income

Per capita: 11,246

Median household: 26,369

Household distribution

Less than $15,000: 17.7%

$15,000 - $30,000: 28.4%

$30,000 - $50,000: 24.2%

$50,000 - $75,000: 17.4%

$75,000 + 12.5%

SOURCES: Census Bureau, Riverside County and Temecula Valley Chamber of Commerce.