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La Habra Heights Shuts the Gates : Privacy: Council majority calls action to bar gated communities a stand against elitism. Real estate industry leaders express dismay.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The City Council of this small, hillside community has voted to forbid neighborhoods from closing themselves off with gates.

The council majority, saying it was taking a stand against elitism, approved an ordinance that makes it illegal to install a security gate across a private or public road.

Mayor John Wible, the only council member who voted against the ban last week, said the ordinance invades property rights, which include the option to gate a private road.

Officials of nearby cities could think of no other city that has enacted such a ban. Real estate industry leaders expressed surprise and dismay at the city’s move, which they consider government intrusion.

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Councilman M. Jay Collins, a 15-year resident of the town of 5,300, led the council supporters of the ban. “There’s an elitist attitude that occurs behind a gated community,” he said in an interview after the meeting. “It breaks up a community and divides the community. You end up with, ‘My area is better than your area.’ ”

Collins first raised the issue before the council last December, after developers brought plans before the city to gate private streets for security reasons.

Collins wanted to keep gates off both new developments and the city’s numerous private roads. These roads, which serve as shared driveways, are maintained by the families that live alongside them. The new ordinance will permit only those street barriers already in place, such as the one at the entrance to Flowerfield Lane, a tract of 20 homes in the southern part of the city.

The ordinance became necessary to prevent neighborhoods from walling off large sections of the city from most residents, Collins said. Whenever the community allows development, it is already surrendering “the natural lay of the land,” he said, and if residents are then locked out, they “have given something up and got nothing in return.”

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At stake, said Collins and other council members, is more than just an electronic security barrier, but the rural, independent, neighborly ambience that attracted residents to settle here in an era when the pervasive avocado ranches of the heights seemed a getaway from Los Angeles.

Residents have fought to maintain this lifestyle before, successfully beating back efforts to build a freeway through the city. Most households still have septic tanks rather than city sewer lines. And the narrow, twisting city streets lack curbs and gutters to create a rural feeling.

“The community is essentially a former avocado grove whose roads were designed for transporting farm produce back to the city,” Collins said.

The City Council also forbids street lights. Said council member Diane Kane: “We want to be able to see the stars in the sky.”

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The encroaching Los Angeles metropolis, however, has practically blotted out the constellations with its light pollution, and brought about other changes as well, including the push for gated neighborhoods. Throughout the city, homes start at $400,000 and move rapidly upward. These days, well-heeled professionals and business people join the community to build multimillion-dollar dream homes on the hilltops. Many newcomers lack the rural orientation of longtime residents, who often raise horses, chickens and other livestock.

Of recent arrivals, Kane said, “They’re putting up lighting all over the place. I think they’re terrified of being in the dark.

“Almost uniformly, people building new homes want perimeter fencing and security gates,” she added. “I don’t see it. Our crime rate is extremely low and our (law-enforcement) response rate is excellent.” Compared to greater Los Angeles, “we are a very safe area,” she said.

At the council meeting, Collins reported that there were only 12 residential burglaries in the first six months of 1990, down from last year.

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Crime statistics show that residents of nearby Whittier are twice as likely to experience residential burglaries, even though Whittier is not regarded as a high-crime area.

The Sheriff’s Department has no record of a murder in La Habra Heights for 1988, 1989 or 1990.

As for gated communities, the Sheriff’s Department has no policy on them. In a letter to the city, Sheriff Sherman Block wrote that a gated community can improve security, but potentially slows down response to calls when officers have to negotiate gates.

Crime wave or no, Mayor Wible, the lone no vote on the ban, said homes worth millions of dollars could legitimately inspire security worries in their owners, and the city should not diminish their property rights. “I’m going to tell you what kind of security you’re going to have?” he asked other council members rhetorically. “I don’t think so.

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“I do live on a private road, but I don’t have a gate,” Wible said later. “I’m not much of a gate guy, hideaway person. I just figure privacy is something I really think people should be able to choose. The basic issue is being able to choose what kind of security you want for your family.”

The presence of gates would not make residents any more active in or detached from the community than they would be otherwise, Wible said.

He added that the council’s vote “has to do with Powder Canyon. They don’t want that to be a gated community.”

The proposed Powder Canyon development would include 136 exclusive homes built around a private golf course in the city’s undeveloped northeast corner.

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“It’s a huge parcel,” council member Kane said. He estimated that gating the Powder Canyon area would close off “one-third of the land mass of the city.”

Sequoia Real Estate in Torrance plans to develop the canyon. The developer will not contest the issue of having gates, said media representative Marlin Weiss.

At least one potential challenge has already arrived, however. Attorney Raymond Tabar of Thomson & Nelson, a Whittier law firm, faxed the city notice that certain unnamed city residents considered the gate ban an infringement of their rights. There may be a court challenge, the letter implied. When contacted, Tabar said he could not disclose his clients’ identity.

A legal battle, even if unsuccessful, could prove costly to the city, which operates with a part-time staff. The city’s annual budget of $2.4 million is less than some residents will spend to purchase homes here.

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Although other municipalities discourage gated communities, the city staff could find no other city that had expressly banned them.

In Orange County, one-third of 140 new developments under construction two years ago had security gates, according to Residential Trends, a Costa Mesa industry publication.

In Los Angeles County, gated districts go back at least 50 years, said Ellen Poll, the president-elect of the Los Angeles Board of Realtors. While security remains a primary motivation, enhancing property values and creating snob appeal are also involved. “There is definitely an aspect of prestige. Developers gate a community when they want to create an upper class,” Poll said.

“A gate purely for its own sake connotes ‘estate.’ It’s a vestigial remains from the day when grand houses were at the end of long beautiful drives which were entered from a gate,” she said.

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Poll added that living behind a gate does not necessarily isolate people from the concerns and problems outside. “They have to come outside of the gate once in a while,” she said.


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