Behind Those Gates : They Are a Hot Real Estate Marketing Tool, but the Case for Them Isn't Open-and-Shut

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill Dean has this nightmare about the future of his hometown Encinitas. In his dream, he sees not trees or ocean vistas, but walls--one solemn-looking gate-guarded community after another.

He sees the huge electronic gates erected to protect the timid residents within, whose homes have been swallowed up by these new and imposing fortresses that effectively shut out everyone--even police and firefighters.

The communities one day could change Encinitas from an easygoing seaside town of convivial middle-class neighborhoods, flower fields and funky downtown diners to a collection of suburban city-states, the Encinitas city planning commissioner fears.

"On Halloween, the kids who go trick-or-treating will have to have five or six different gate keys just to be able to reach all the houses in their area," Dean said.

"And when their parents throw block parties, they'll only get to see the people who live within their own four walls."

Gates and protective walls, once the domain of the rich and influential, are a hot marketing tool for developers in San Diego County to sell scores of newly built middle-class housing tracts.

However, along with their popularity among home buyers has come mounting concern among city officials such as Dean, who caution that the trend toward walled communities presents serious safety concerns and threatens to forever alter the face of suburban North County.

Gated communities, Dean says, are one more questionable aspect of "the Los Angelization of San Diego."

"There may be a reason for all these gates up in L.A., but as someone responsible for the planning of Encinitas, they are not a design element I want to see incorporated here.

"Just because it's become a successful marketing trend doesn't mean we should all jump on the bandwagon. I mean, pet rocks were a trend, too. And I didn't go out and start hoarding them, either."

Many residents, however, say the gates provide added security, cut down on nuisance traffic and burglaries--along with sealing out the pressures of the outside world.

Ron Edde says your point of view depends on what side of the gate you're sitting on. A real estate agent who sits on the board of directors of the gate-guarded subdivision Encinitas Real, he says the gates let him sleep better at night.

"I know that some creep isn't going to pull a truck up to my garage and unload all my belongings at will," he said.

And sure, the gates are elitist, he adds. "It's not like buying your first Mercedes, it's not saying you've finally arrived. But it does say that you value your success and feel you have the right to limited access to your property.

"There's a lot of resentment from the general public who feel they're closed out. They don't like not being able to drive through every neighborhood. Well, that's tough. Go buy into your own gated community.

"Because my feeling is, if you don't live in the area, and you're not a guest, you're not necessarily welcome there anyway."

Police and fire authorities across the North County, however, fear the gates may one day backfire in a big way.

Although fire departments keep keys to the gates, many officials worry that the attempt at added security might slow firefighters, police or medical personnel from reaching the scene of an emergency.

Officials point to a 1988 incident in Encinitas in which paramedics responding to a heart attack call were momentarily sidelined by an electronic gate the city had erected at the request of residents to cut down on traffic through their neighborhood.

The delay caused to rescuers was a critical factor in the death of Charles Coble, according to his wife, Rosita, who has filed a wrongful death suit against the city.

"People seem to believe that these gates create an atmosphere of security," said Coble's attorney, Joel Pressman. "In this instance, however, the gate caused a disaster for my client. It delayed paramedics from getting to her husband."

The Encinitas fire marshal is also outspoken on the subject of gated communities.

"I hate 'em," said Chief Ron McCarver. "Anything that tends to slow down emergency response time, I'm dead set against."

According to statistics compiled by the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, there are more than 35 gated subdivisions in Encinitas, Del Mar and Solana Beach alone--along with at least 20 more in both Vista and Oceanside, city officials there say.

And that's not counting all the trailer parks that have recently erected walls around themselves, authorities say.

That's too many gates, McCarver said. For one, he said, security precautions differ at each gated neighborhood. Some provide a key for fire officials. And several of the newer ones feature a gate mechanism triggered by the flashing strobe light of a fire engine or ambulance.

Several North County fire marshals have urged officials in their cities to modify the fire code to require gates protecting four or more homes to be equipped with the strobe-light opening system.

But those systems cost money for the department to buy the special lights, McCarver said. And even they aren't fool-proof.

"If the power goes out, nothing works," he said. "There's no backup power to many of these systems. In that case, the emergency driver has to get out and engage a device that allows him to open the gate by hand. And then you're wasting precious time."

Chris Kee, a patrol sergeant for the Sheriff's Department's Encinitas substation, said that the strobe light system is too expensive to equip every patrol car. Instead, patrol officers are given numerical codes they can punch into a control box to get past a gate.

"When you have as many gated communities as we have nowadays, you can't remember all the codes," he said. "You write them down and you still lose them. There's so many of them, sometimes you get confused."

Residents living within gated communities have complained about slow response after stymied deputies entered the wrong gate code, he said.

"The question that I have is, 'Are we going to be able to get on the inside of one of those things on time when a real emergency breaks out?' "

McCarver worries that non-walled neighborhoods will join the gating trend, creating more slowdowns for emergency workers.

"I went to a public hearing at my mother-in-law's housing development (in Encinitas), where they were considering installing one of these gates," he said. "They had this real estate guy standing up there telling these people that their property values would go sky-high if they became a gated community."

Realtors estimate that gates add about 5% to the value of a home, or about $10,000 for a $200,000 home.

"I left that meeting with a pretty good idea of the thinking behind many of these gated communities. They're not so much for security as they are a prestige thing. They put money in people's pockets."

Builders say, however, that the walls are erected to keep unwanted people out, not to pull buyers in.

"Certainly, the security aspect is important," said Eve Hager, vice president of sales and marketing of Davidson Communities, which has constructed three gated communities in La Jolla, Del Mar and Rancho Santa Fe, as well as non-gated developments.

She said the appeal of the gated communities is mainly to the "move-down buyer," retirement age owners who buy a less expensive attached home and spend much of the time away.

"It puts their mind at ease, when they're gone for months at a time, to know that their home is left safely behind a locked gate."

Hager said elitism was the furthest thing from the mind of most buyers of gated communities. And forget that stuff about not fitting into the scheme of the larger community, she said.

"Our developments fit well into the communities they're in," she said. "We're not into walled compounds. There's no spikes or gun turrets at the top of the walls.

"Because our intention isn't to segregate people. Our developments may have gates, but they're not fortresses."

Not everyone in the housing industry is so pleased with the gated community concept.

Cynthia Van Cleave, vice president and general manager of the San Diego office of the Marquis Management Group, which manages the homeowners' associations for 25 gated communities here, said the gates pose a constant maintenance problem.

"They're a headache," she said. "Mechanically speaking, I can't think of one gate that we haven't had at least one major problem with in the past year."

Furthermore, the word 'security' is now avoided by builders when referring to their gate-guarded communities, she said.

"There have been lawsuits filed back and forth over the fact of whether they actually do provide security. I mean, people who live behind them have been robbed, their homes have been broken into.

"Now the developers have changed their language to say the gates provide a 'secure environment.' To me, it's more like providing a reassuring feeling of being separate, but not necessarily security."

When it comes to gated communities, San Marcos Mayor Lee Thibadeau, a resident of the 86-home walled-in subdivision Walnut Hill, isn't exactly a satisfied customer either.

Unaware of the gates when he bought the home, he was none too pleased when he later got the news.

"I wasn't too excited," he said. "They're a hassle. They break down. But it means something to others, prestige and security, in their minds."

And, although his City Council last month approved yet another such community, Thibadeau has his reservations when it comes to emergency response.

"I know it sounds crazy, but the developer forgot to let the Police Department know the access code to our gate," he said. "So, right now, the police can't get in.

"It's ironic, I guess. I live in a gated community, but I'm more vulnerable than if I lived on the outside."

Last fall, Bill Dean of Encinitas decided to take a stand on the gate-guarded community concept, casting the deciding vote on the planning commission's decision to refuse a local apartment complex permission to install a gate for security concerns.

The apartment owners appealed to the City Council and eventually won their case in a unanimous vote. But Dean isn't giving up the fight.

"We're sending a message to developers that their future plans for gated communities aren't always going to sail through with flying colors, that sometimes there's going to be some public outcry against them."

And his idea is gaining support among other city planners--especially in Encinitas.

"They're insular," Craig Jones, senior city planner, said of the subdivisions. "They're like a group of neighbors turning their backsides to the rest of us, saying we'll take care of ourselves.

"In some cases, I think, they've become a knee-jerk formula for development that isn't necessarily appropriate."

Encinitas Councilwoman Marjorie Gaines said, however, that the City Council isn't going to issue rubber-stamp refusals to requests for gate-guarded communities.

Like others, she says the gates can be a way to reduce the city budget for roads upkeep because residents of these subdivisions build and maintain their own roads and street lights.

"Bill Dean lives on a cul-de-sac, so he doesn't know about traffic and other concerns," she said. "A lot of people have a hard time seeing past their own noses when it comes to appreciating what others put up with.

"It would be nice to go back 50 years when people felt secure in their own homes. But things are vastly different today. They don't feel secure now. So, if people want a gated community and can demonstrate strong public support for it, I won't stand in their way."

Mechanical Problems

Four years ago, Susan Schena, a reporter for the San Diego Business Journal, bought one of the 142 tract homes in Encinitas Real. Since then, she says, the gates have provided one irritation after another.

Her community has tried three different types of gates, including one that slides to the side, one that swings inward and another that raises up. All three versions have remained broken much of the time, she said.

When homeowners recently voted on purchasing yet another type of gate, Schena suggested that residents remove it altogether.

"I'm happiest when the gates aren't working, then I can just drive right through," she said. "And they're generally broken. They usually work, though, when we have parties, so people have to wait to get in.

"They also work when we order a pizza, so the kid has to call us from the nearby 7-Eleven. But they apparently didn't work the night we got robbed."

On Halloween night, a burglar hit several homes on Schena's walled-in street, including her own.

"People always use the excuse about the gates cutting down traffic and adding security, but I don't buy it," she said. "I'll tell you one thing, though, I'd never buy into one again."

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