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Rural Enclave Is a Well-Kept Secret : Fallbrook: Newcomers, many of them retirees, have been attracted by large lots and small-town charm of the avocado capital.

<i> Sutro is a free-lance writer in Cardiff-by-the-Sea</i>

It’s the avocado capital of the state, maybe even the world, but you aren’t likely to stumble across Fallbrook by accident.

Fifteen miles east of Oceanside, midway between San Diego and Los Angeles, Fallbrook is a well-kept secret. Local folklore has it that Fallbrook residents lobbied Caltrans to keep any mention of their cozy, rural enclave off Interstate 15.

Those who do find Fallbrook generally swoon over it.

“The setting we have, with oaks, sycamores, a stream right through the property, the avocado grove and total privacy--that’s what sold us,” said Bob Gabel, who moved to Fallbrook from Manhattan Beach with his wife, Kathy, last fall. Their property is just east of the village-like heart of town, near Live Oak Park.

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“I always told my husband I never wanted to be away from the ocean, but I don’t really miss it at all,” Kathy said.

“If I want to go to the beach, it only takes 30 minutes to get to Oceanside. Manhattan Beach is getting a lot of yuppies. I loved it, but it was kind of hard to get to know people. Here, it just seems like a friendlier, down-home atmosphere. I feel a lot more comfortable.”

Friendly neighbors are only one reason people fall for Fallbrook. Another is the setting. Rows of avocado trees and groves of eucalyptus soften the contours of low rolling hills, and gnarled coast live oaks line hidden valleys.

Warm days make it possible to tee off at several local golf courses all year long, and cool nights are just right for sitting by the fireplace. County zoning preserves space and privacy by keeping lots in most areas of Fallbrook to at least an acre.

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Fallbrook is known as a retirement community, but it is also home to a small number of people who commute to work in Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange County. ‘It’s not really a bedroom community,” says Tom Keelgan, a local real estate agent.

The village at the center of town is the kind of place many Southern Californians have never experienced. A main street called Main Street has wide sidewalks that carry you past such local institutions as The Enterprise (the local newspaper), Roger’s Barber Shop, Village Stationers, Fallbrook Pharmacy, Main Avenue Books and Square One Restaurant, which serves hearty meat loaf and other nightly specials to locals who frequent the place.

Fallbrook was founded in 1885, and there are still a few storefronts on Main Street from the early days.

Of course, such an idyllic escape hatch as Fallbrook hasn’t gone unnoticed, especially in crowded Southern California. Since 1970, the population of the Fallbrook area, including the small nearby communities of Bonsall and Rainbow, has grown from 12,038 to 34,600, and McDonald’s, Sizzler and Del Taco have come to town.

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Projections indicate a local citizenry of 38,700 by the year 2,000. The good news is that there are still no parking meters.

Fallbrook’s economy mixes retailing, tourism, agriculture and real estate, and there are signs of future growth into corporate business. Hewlett Packard bought 400 acres just outside town in the early 1980s, but has yet to build on the property.

Although avocados have been the main local cash crop since the first grove was planted in 1912, Fallbrook growers also produce citrus, macadamia nuts, strawberries and tomatoes.

Many who move to Fallbrook find themselves making radical lifestyle changes. Bob Gabel, for example, went from Los Angeles fireman to gentleman rancher, tending two acres of avocado trees surrounding the motor home where he and his wife live while he remodels their low, concrete block house.

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The Gabels investigated several retirement possibilities. Kathy Gabel was set on moving to another beach community until they visited Fallbrook. Soon, they had sold their compact beach home on a 40-by-118 lot for $625,000 and bought a three-bedroom fixer house on 3.8 acres in Fallbrook--for about half the price.

Like the Gabels, George and Annie Waibel are retirees who fell in love with Fallbrook on first sight while searching for an escape from urban chaos, in their case in Orange County.

“We just decided one day we wanted to get out of that rat race in the city,” said Annie Waibel, whose husband retired after working for the state of California and the U.S. Navy and owning a small business.

“We had been taking little trips, looking around. We first saw Fallbrook last February,” she said. “I like the laid-back atmosphere. There’s no rush, people don’t hurry. It’s really peaceful and quiet.”

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The Waibels sold a 1,580-square foot house in the Orange County community of Rossmoor for $350,000 and bought 2 1/4 acres in Fallbrook with a four-bedroom country-style house for $320,000.

Waibel spends his days taking care of his “ranch.” An acre of avocado trees had been destroyed by root rot, and he plans to replace them with eucalyptus. He hopes to sell eucalyptus clippings to nurseries.

In his secluded ravine, surrounded by coast live oaks, Waibel, who was raised on farms in northern New Jersey and Upstate New York, says he has found the perfect retirement spot.

“Oh, man, I’m happier than a pig in a mud hole. You know what they say. You can take the boy off the farm but can’t take the farm off the boy,” he said with a laugh.

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“I take care of the house and do a little tole painting--folk art painting on wood,” Annie Waibel added.

Longtime locals have mixed reactions to the changes they see in their community, an unincorporated San Diego County area.

Betty Jackson, owner of Square One Restaurant, moved to Fallbrook from Illinois with her husband, Robert, in 1958. She has watched as concrete curbs have replaced wooden sidewalks downtown and large ranches have been subdivided into smaller parcels and sold as home sites.

“It’s changed as far as the people who live here,” Jackson said. “Most of the ranches have gone and it’s more retired people. It’s grown and there’s more traffic, but compared to the rest of Southern California, Fallbrook is still comparatively unknown, and there’s not that much traffic.”

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Other longtime residents fear that Fallbrook will eventually lose many of its most desirable qualities. One of them is Bill Ahrend, owner of Ahrend Studio, whose father opened the local business as Fallbrook Camera in the 1950s.

“I can remember when it was very small and you knew everybody around,” said Ahrend, who specializes in portrait photography and weddings.

“Over the years, that has changed to where you know very few people. It has grown quite a lot. It’s still kind of homey compared to Los Angeles or San Diego, but it’s a little bigger than what I like.

“I’m still happy with it so far, but I probably won’t like it in another five years, mainly because of the traffic.”

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Everyone around Ahrend in his store nodded in agreement. “There used to be no traffic lights, and you could go from one end of town to the other in a minute. Now it takes 10 minutes to get across town.”

Even so, Fallbrook still looks like Shangri-La to most of the world. And a relatively affordable Shangri-La, at that.

Detached homes start at about $150,000 for three bedrooms on a quarter-acre, realtors say. For $200,000 to $250,000, you can get four bedrooms and more land, and $250,000 to $400,000 buys increasing amounts of square footage, land and views. Fallbrook also has a few of homes that would sell for more than $1 million.

Homes recently on the market included a four-bedroom, two-bath place on more than an acre for $289,000, a large hilltop Mediterranean-style home with great views on four acres for $525,000 and a four-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath house on a cul-de-sac for $230,000. Two-acre lots start at about $150,000.

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The more expensive homes are on the edges of town, in all directions. Fallbrook is surrounded by Bonsall to the south, Camp Pendleton to the west, and communities such as Pala and Temecula along Interstate 15 to the east.

While tract housing has marched over much of Southern California, Fallbrook’s hills and valleys seem destined to remain relatively pristine--there are only two small new tract developments selling houses.

The 69-home Allegre project at Fallbrook Street and Debra Ann Drive offers three- to five-bedroom houses from $214,000 to $257,000.

Much larger new homes on lots averaging one-third of an acre can be found at the 37-home Fallbrook Oaks on Gird Road north of Pala Road, where prices range from $315,000 to $450,000.

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Once people move to Fallbrook, they tend to spend most of their time there. You don’t need to leave town to find culture and entertainment. The ‘40s-era Mission Theatre downtown, with its Quonset-hut like shape, shows first-run movies and is also home to the Fallbrook Players, the community’s amateur theater group. There is also a new multi-cinema about six miles south of town.

A few supermarket shopping centers in town offer a variety of places to buy groceries, clothes, gifts and a variety of specialty items. Larger regional malls in Oceanside and Escondido are only half an hour away.

On Friday nights in autumn, the place to be is Fallbrook High School, where crowds turn out for football games. The high school has also become a political football in town, with debate about whether or not to build a second high school.

The number of high school students in Fallbrook, now served only by Fallbrook High School, is expected to grow to 3,565 by 1998 from about 2,200 now. In November, voters turned down a bond issue that would have raised $30 million toward a new high school. Fallbrook also has four elementary schools and a junior high.

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In an effort to preserve the folksy heart of Fallbrook and help it thrive, a Main Street merchants group has banded together as Old Main St. Their efforts focus on a vacant lot at Main and Alvarado streets where a hardware store once stood.

“We are going to turn it into Old Main St. Market by Christmas,” promised Betty Jackson, who serves as Old Main St.'s president.

“We’re going to have vegetable and fruit stands, a gazebo with sandwiches and drinks, awnings, bright umbrellas, bushel baskets full of dried flowers, pumpkins, avocados, oranges. We’re trying to make downtown a more interesting place.”

AT A GLANCE Population

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1990 estimate: 18,0646

1980-90 change: 28.7%

Median age: 31.9 years

Annual income

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Per capita: 13,403

Median household: 31,858

Household distribution

Less than $15,000: 19.9%

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$15,000 - $30,000: 27.5%

$30,000 - $50,000: 27.2%

$50,000 - $75,000: 14.6%

$75,000 + 10.8%

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