Old West Saddles Up for Newcomers : Santa Clarita Valley: With the completion of freeways, area has seen rapid population increases. Despite traffic snarls, it retains some of its rustic past.

Sharon Rose is a free-lance writer and a former Santa Clarita resident who nows lives in Bishop, Calif

In 1875, an auctioneer from Saugus, Mass., bought a 48,000-acre ranch for about $98,000 in the next valley north of the San Fernando Mission. Ravaged by the 1857 earthquake and the 1862 drought, the land was bereft. Cattle ranching and farming had ceased.

More than a century later, commuters ease off freeway exits onto tree-lined parkways, past billboards that beckon, "Come home to Valencia." Today, the $98,000 that pioneer Henry Mayo Newhall paid for his ranch, would just about buy a condo in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Mary and Dick Ellefson paid just under $300,000 for their townhome in the Stratford Collection, built by Warmington Homes in the Valencia Summit neighborhood.

"We just love the openness of Santa Clarita," said Mary Ellefson, an advertising secretary at a local newspaper whose husband works for Department of Water and Power in Los Angeles. "There are so many things to do outdoors--there's tennis, swimming, Jacuzzi."

Their townhome was a move-up buy for the Ellefsons, who purchased their first Valencia home for about $60,000 in 1977, when they moved from Reseda.

"We had outgrown our home," Mary Ellefson said. "And bussing was about to begin. We didn't want our daughter bussed to Los Angeles. We started looking out here and fell in love with it."

While many Santa Clarita residents complain about traffic, she thinks the problem is solvable.

"The traffic is unfortunate, but we're already seeing improvements with new roads that are going in. This is still a great place to raise children. It's such a relaxed atmosphere. I really wouldn't want to live anywhere else."

Nestled between Interstate 5, the Antelope Valley (14) Freeway and the Angeles National Forest, the Santa Clarita Valley encompasses Saugus, Newhall, Valencia, Canyon Country, Castaic, Agua Dulce and Val Verde. The city of Santa Clarita, incorporated two years ago, includes most of Newhall, Saugus, Valencia and Canyon Country.

Although Newhall and Saugus had existed since the late 1800s, it was the opening of master-planned Valencia in the 1960s that put the Santa Clarita Valley on the affordable-housing map. Valencia's carefully planned neighborhoods, linked to parks, pools, business and schools by a system of lighted pathways known as paseos, have become a model for the home building industry.

But up until the mid-1960s and construction of Interstate 5 and the Antelope Valley (14) Freeway, the Santa Clarita Valley remained a sleepy little community.

Some Angelenos may remember taking a Sunday drive out to Saugus or Newhall and lunch at the Saugus Cafe. The area was a place to ride motorcycles or horses, to buy vegetables, to target shoot or just smell the sagebrush.

But live there? Maybe, if you had a job at Thatcher Glass, Bermite or Newhall Land & Farming.

The postwar housing boom in the San Fernando Valley stopped just north of Granada Hills. But developers, aware that the Valley would one day fill to capacity, envisioned houses "over the hill." Throughout the 1950s and '60s, ads announced new homes in Saugus and Newhall, priced from $15,000 to $30,000.

The North Oaks tract appeared in Canyon Country. The first American Beauty Homes went in. Then in 1967, coinciding with the opening of northbound Interstate 5 and the Antelope Valley Freeway, Newhall Land & Farming opened Valencia, and the valley began changing rapidly.

"I remember riding through there as a little boy," says Jerry Reynolds, author and curator of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society.

"My parents had stopped for Cokes at the Saugus Cafe. I was sitting in the back seat of the car, looking out the window and thinking how desolate it was. People were milling about in bib overalls."

In 1973, Reynolds and his wife, Myrna, bought a home in Newhall for $23,000. It was quiet. People were riding horses around and walking everywhere. They'd stop and say hello.

"Now it has mushroomed into a monstrosity not fit to live in," he said. "Developers have built a nightmare. You can't get anywhere."

Between 1960 and 1970, the Santa Clarita Valley's population leaped from 15,000 to 50,000. By 1980, the count had reached 79,000.

During the 1980s, as the possibility of incorporation loomed, growth quickened. Wary that cityhood might bring limits on growth, developers filled in the landscape at a rapid rate. By 1990, population estimates hovered at around 135,000.

As the San Fernando Valley matured, employment opportunities increased. Scarcely a 15-minute drive from the San Fernando Valley, Santa Clarita became an ideally located bedroom community.

Named by the Spaniards who visited it in 1769 on the feast day of St. Clare, the Santa Clarita Valley existed for almost 200 years in relative isolation.

Wedged between three mountain ranges, the Sierra Pelona to the north, the San Gabriels to the east and the Santa Susanas to the south, the history of the 90-square mile valley is a Reader's Digest of the American West.

Here beside the Santa Clara River, the cultural light of the Tatavium Indians faded, only to be replaced by the metallic glint of barbed wire, missionary crosses and gold. Here in Placerita Canyon, California's first placer gold was discovered in 1842. Later came railroads and the discovery of oil, all contributing to the growth of the little pueblo to the south known as Los Angeles.

Early Hollywood filmmakers also were attracted to Santa Clarita's gently folded, golden, oaken hills, its rugged canyons and purple sunsets. It was perfect for Western landscape photography.

As early as 1914, William S. Hart used Newhall and Placerita Canyon for location shooting. Actor Harry Carey had a ranch and trading post in San Francisquito Canyon. Hoot Gibson bought a rodeo arena named Baker Ranch Stadium (now Saugus Speedway). Tom Mix, John Wayne and Clark Gable all appeared there. John Ford directed films in Newhall and Saugus, using Beale's Cut, a trail for wagon trains, as a set.

When Hart died, his beautiful Spanish adobe mansion and land was bequeathed to the county as a park, which today features areas for picnic and play and a petting zoo, and is neighbor to historic Heritage Junction park and the old Saugus Train Station/Museum.

The valley retained its ranching and farming identity well into the middle of this century. But as Los Angeles became urbanized, the growth spread northward in the 1950s and 1960s.

"At that time, the county tax assessor began to tax ranches as residential," said Carol Maglione, a spokesperson for Newhall Land & Farming Co. The Newhall family, as the valley's largest landholder, would pay higher taxes and see their agricultural operations surrounded by residential development.

"They decided to build a master-planned community," Maglione said. "They wanted it to be a self-contained community, complete with infrastructure, industrial parks, recreation and shopping."

Named for the oranges grown on the Newhall ranch, Valencia is the result of a master plan for 10,500 acres. According to Maglione, about 5,000 acres have been developed, with 600 acres now under development in the North River planning area.

Over the years, many Southland home builders have brought projects to the Santa Clarita Valley, including Brock, Pardee, American Beauty, Warmington, Larwin, Griffin Homes, Shapell, Valencia Co. (owned by Newhall Land) and Dale Poe Development.

The median-priced new home in the Santa Clarita Valley is $240,000, according to Eric C. Brown, a vice president at the Meyers Group, a real estate consulting firm. The average price for new condos and townhomes is $149,000.

Resale prices vary, due to the range of differences in communities--from large ranch-style properties with room for horses, to modern suburban tracts.

For example, average prices range from $145,500 and $195,500 in Val Verde and Canyon Country, respectively, to $227,000 in Saugus to $274,900 in Valencia. In Agua Dulce, where parcels frequently run to a few acres, the average price for existing detached homes is $409,000.

Resales in prestigious Valencia Summit, built by Warmington Homes, range from $300,000 to $900,000. Condominiums average from $128,900 in Newhall to $300,000 in Valencia Summit.

Primarily escapees from the San Fernando Valley, most Santa Clarita home buyers are two-income families. Many are in the child-rearing years; they come in search of good schools, safe neighborhoods.

Linda and Steve Kassel, professionals in their early 30s, are move-ups from a condominium. After searching Los Angeles for an affordable new home, they came to the Santa Clarita Valley.

"This was the only place we could afford to buy a new house without moving out of the area away from our jobs and families," said Linda Kassel, mother of 18-month-old Sasha and a high school English teacher.

During their house hunt, the Kassels came upon Stevenson Ranch, built by Dale Poe Development. They fell in love with a house in a neighborhood called The Arts.

"We saw the model in early 1989," Linda Kassel said. "Then we had to be on a waiting list and be chosen in a lottery." The Kassels purchased their two-bedroom plus convertible den home for $188,000 in early 1989. By October, it was ready for occupancy.

Steve Kassel, a biofeedback therapist and counselor, said the couple wanted to live closer to the city, but couldn't afford it.

"I came to this area as a film student at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts), and always expected I'd return to West L.A. near my family," he said. "But it's too expensive there now. And too congested. After a while, I started to like it here. There's a bigger sky."

The Kassels say they're happy with their home purchase. They like the community. They love the house, the yard, the view of rolling hills out front. But there are a few concerns.

"We may have to pay about $4,000 in taxes for schools and roads that we were not prepared for," said Steve Kassel, who doesn't think it's fair. "Developers appear to be wriggling out of their obligations."

In Santa Clarita, everyone talks about roads. Everyone talks about traffic. And just about everyone blames developers.

"People have to live somewhere," said Jack Shine, president of First Financial Group in Encino and builder of American Beauty homes in Santa Clarita for more than 20 years. "Developers have responded to a market demand for housing."

Despite Santa Clarita's growth problems, people want to live there. What looks bad to those who knew the valley "in the good old days," looks good to pilgrims from Van Nuys, Burbank and Sylmar--weary of thickening densities of buildings, people and traffic.

An Easterner, seeing Santa Clarita for the first time, might chuckle at this vision of "Western City," sprawled over 40 square miles, with not a high-rise in sight and parking spaces galore. Generic modern shopping centers stand beside old adobe buildings, with aging wooden hitching posts out front.

In some parts of town, kids ride ponies around the block like Big Wheels. This is Santa Clarita, a clash of Wild West and ultramodern, a place where status means having no sidewalks.

Santa Clarita's identification with Hollywood and the West is real. Downtown, in old Newhall, sidewalks are etched with stars containing the names of Western movie greats. Over at the Way Station, breakfast is served amid posters and memorabilia from the early days. Biscuits and gravy are still a staple at the Saugus Cafe, where James Dean is said to have eaten his last meal.

Every autumn around harvest time, a three-day rodeo and Western Frontier Days is sponsored by the Canyon Country Chamber of Commerce, complete with parade and beauty pageant selecting a Frontier Belle.

It was Placerita Canyon that gave birth to Monogram Studios, which later became Gene Autry's Melody Ranch. Today, the Disney film lot is an enchanting view from the road.

Many of the stuntmen and animal trainers who came to the valley for film work, later settled to raise kids and horses on small ranchettes. Lassie, Arnold the Pig, and even a horse from the Spuds McKenzie Budweiser commercials are among the famous animal stars trained in the valley.

Longtime valley observer Ruth Newhall said roads and schools are crowded because "the county supervisors allowed developers to do anything they wanted out here." For 25 years, Ruth and Scott Newhall, a member of the pioneer family, published the Newhall Signal (and later the short-lived Citizen), documenting and criticizing the development of their cherished valley.

It was largely perceptions of overdevelopment that led to incorporation of the city of Santa Clarita in December, 1988.

"People may be expecting too much too soon from the new city," says City Councilman Carl Boyer. "The city has had to live with a lot of county planning and zoning entitlements that were handed out in a rush just prior to incorporation."

Traffic, Boyer said, will cease to be a problem when there is less commuting and more people working in the valley where they live.

"As a new city, I think we should work with industry and employers to find ways to get people into owner-occupied housing. Maybe people who work here should get first choice on homes."

The councilman is concerned about the growing number of renters who cannot afford to buy in Santa Clarita. "I'd like to see our city require some kind of affordable housing so people don't have to drive to Los Angeles for big-paying jobs."

"Santa Clarita is gaining jobs as it grows," notes Jim Lewis, executive vice president of the Santa Clarita Board of Realtors. "The people who voted for cityhood wanted to make sure we have the infrastructure to provide the things people move here for, like good schools and open space. They didn't want the county making decisions for them, some 40 miles away. They wanted controlled growth."

Since incorporation, Santa Clarita had begun work on a general plan, negotiated a settlement with Arco for no additional co-generation plants in Placerita Canyon, and adopted an oak tree ordinance to protect the trees. The city is also working with Los Angeles County on a system of trails for walking, bicycling and equestrians.

Santa Clarita's greatest achievement since cityhood, according to parks commissioner Laurene Weste, "is the establishment of Towsley Canyon Park at our doorstep. This was the first purchase for the proposed Santa Clarita Woodlands Park. If we get this park, we'll have a forested buffer zone between the Santa Clarita and San Fernando valleys. We're going to need it."

As proposed, the 6,000-acre Woodlands park would be larger than Griffith Park, and provide camping, hiking and other recreational uses for the burgeoning populations of two fast-growing valleys. "We have to set aside these areas now," Weste says. "before the developers and dumps get them. In the future, the land will become unaffordable.

"We haven't been truly rural since 1972, but this is still a good place to live. You can't get away from growth. The answer is planning. Had Valencia not been planned, we would look like the San Fernando Valley. I think we've done a better job."

AT A GLANCE

Population 1990 estimate: 139,693 1980-90 change: 82.1%

Median age: 28.4 years

Annual income Per capita: 19,168 Median household: 57,660

Household distribution Less than $15,000: 6.8% $15,000 - $30,000: 11.2% $30,000 - $50,000: 22% $50,000 - $75,000: 32.6% $75,000 + : 27.3%

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