The Town at the End of The Tunnel : As the county faces urbanization, La Conchita endures with its own concerns.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cherie Chako had a choice. She and her partner could afford to either rent a home in Santa Barbara or buy one in this odd little place called La Conchita.

The neighborhood ran from ocean-view mansions to crumbling mobile homes, and amounted to just 12 blocks. To get out, you had to fling your car onto the busy highway from a stop-sign standstill. To cross the highway, you had to risk your life as a pedestrian or crouch and creep through a waist-high storm drain tunnel.

But at the other end of that tunnel lay uncrowded shores and 180-degree views of Pacific Ocean.

Chako bought.

Twelve years later, she's still there on Zelzah Street, commuting six days a week to the music store she runs in Santa Barbara.

"I love living on the beach," she says. "Except on the weekends. And the summertime, when you can't get into and out of your house."

And so, wearing its advantages and disadvantages on its sleeve, La Conchita endures.

While urbanizing Ventura County struggles with growth, industry and infrastructure, La Conchita's several hundred surfers, seniors, bohemians and young families have chosen life as a roadside distraction.

Habits of the Natives

To vote, they drive to the fire station in Seacliff, about a mile south.

To shop, they head five miles north to Carpinteria or 10 miles south to Ventura.

To attend public schools, their children board Ventura-bound buses.

"The bus ride is so long ," complains Benny Stone, who will soon turn 14 and begin classes at Ventura High School. He says the trip takes an hour, and the bus vibrates so much "you can't even do your homework."

The streets were only paved about three years ago, after many years of lobbying in county offices by La Conchita Community Assn. President Clarence Dean.

"Of course, that didn't make me friends with everybody here," says Dean, a retired engineer who moved up from Los Angeles 23 years ago. "Some of them liked things the way they were."

Every spring, the neighborhood throws a big garage sale. And at the end of every summer, there's a community party and dance among the fruits of the neighboring Seaside Banana Garden.

"It's an awesome place to live," says Robin Lovelady, 32, who moved in two years ago with her husband and four children. They rent a two-bedroom house on Ojai Street, and she works two days a week at the banana plantation.

"It's total Bohemia, and I love it," says Lorence Burndorf, owner of the Palm Street Gallery in Ventura and recent purchaser of a La Conchita home.

"It's the perfect place, I think, to bring kids up," says Jenny Oren, a lifelong La Conchitan who, at 17, qualifies as a kid herself. "You don't have any violence or anything. . . . I think I've only heard of one person who had a house broken into, and that was about five years ago."

And of course there are the storm drains.

Subterranean Passage

Caltrans built them in 1955, one storm drain at each end of town. Volunteers keep the western tunnel clear and tidy, and most of the locals use it to reach the beach. Last year, neighbors Randy Stone (Benny's father) and Jack Oren (Jenny's father) built a wooden deck with benches on the ocean side of the passage.

"People go down there, have a margarita, and watch the sunset," says Jenny Oren. "It's great. Everyone knows each other."

Some go there for a solitary cigarette. Others cast fishing lines from the platform. Young Benny Stone, an aspiring surfer who spends a lot of his time at the beach, estimates that he passes through the tunnel four times a day, either creeping on foot or hunched down on his bicycle.

"You get used to it," he says.

A lot of the the tourists don't even notice the underground route. The plantation lures them off the freeway, they buy some exotic bananas, and the guys at the Arco station charge them about $1.40 per gallon of self-service unleaded gas. For use of the restroom, another 25 cents.

These days, the bananas and the gas station are the only businesses in town, and La Conchitans have their streets, and their dirt alleys, pretty much to themselves. There is no city council, not much evidence of county government, not much crime, and not much interest in seeing those things change. If only the freeway ran a different route.

But then La Conchita would be another place altogether.

Old Days, Oil and Clams

Margaret Scheidman holds an old black-and-white photo. In it, half a dozen young people are gathered around a picnic table, laughing. This was La Conchita, long ago.

"I look at this," she says, "and I realize Rudy and me are the only ones left. All the others are dead. Look. I still had red hair. That was a long time ago."

Her hair is white now, and she is 82. Her husband is Rudy Scheidman, former co-owner of Frank and Rudy's restaurant, once the only dining establishment in La Conchita.

He arrived in the area before World War II and started his business. Soon after the war, he married Margaret and moved her from Santa Barbara to La Conchita.

"I hated it," she says. "It wasn't a town even--just a wide spot in the road. I thought it was out in the boondocks. . . . But it's easy to get here now. We've got a good freeway."

In the old days, that wasn't a selling point.

"The beach without an undertow," the newspaper ads said then. "Easy terms . . . One-year tent privileges."

In 1924, developer William Ramelli subdivided about 300 seaside lots to make up a community he called La Conchita Del Mar. The little seashell.

Lots went for $200 to $495, and the community plans showed a gas station, restaurant, store and dance hall. Sunday afternoons, a jazz orchestra played. In the shallow waters offshore, a stationery raft for swimmers was planned. The Mussel Rock Inn, just up the road, offered Italian dinners for $1.50.

The road, first a stage path and then a railroad route, got a smooth, wood-plank surface in 1912. In the '20s came paving.

All that, and still lots sold slowly.

Years later, after oil companies had begun extracting riches from the Rincon area, a different sales team tried a new strategy: For $1,000, you got an acre-lot, with rights to half of its oil yield thrown in.

But there was no oil yield from the residential lots. And that was only one of several setbacks for La Conchita over the coming years. The Mussel Rock Inn closed down.

Margaret Scheidman remembers that after war in the Pacific began in 1941, authorities called for blackouts of seaside lights, thereby closing down Frank and Rudy's restaurant. Rudy went to work in the oil business.

Over the next few years, dozens of trailers and mobile homes took root in La Conchita lots and the local population soared into the high hundreds. Laundry services delivered, as did a bakery.

Then Caltrans set out to improve the highway between Ventura and Santa Barbara.

The Freeway

First, the state bought up all the La Conchita properties on the ocean side of the road, and widened the highway. Instead of their old restaurant and dance hall, La Conchitans got another lane between them and the sea.

By 1970, the state was ready to make the highway into a full-fledged freeway. Caltrans officials proposed to give La Conchita its own on- and off-ramps, and to relocate a nearby clam bed that might be harmed by the project.

The clams--thousands of them--came, dug up two miles south and replanted on the La Conchita shore by a bevy of Santa Barbara City College students.

The ramps didn't. In 1972, state budgets tightened and Caltrans streamlined its project. La Conchita was left out--its stretch of the freeway is officially a highway, not a freeway--and its residents were consigned to a future of adventures in automotive handling and acceleration.

"Sometimes you just can't get across," says Mike Scheck, a 46-year-old glass artist who moved in three years ago.

To go south, drivers must defy three lanes of steady, speedy northbound traffic. Scheck and others note that Caltrans has added a transition lane to give La Conchita's drivers a little room to speed up and slow down.

But still, Scheck says, "it's dangerous. All your car has to do is decide not to go at that moment, and you're history."

Bill Charbonneau, chief of project development for Caltrans in that area, says officials have been studying the prospects for an off-ramp to serve La Conchita and Mussle Shoals jointly.

But he also says the freeway's accident rate in that area is not substantially above average, and that the Ventura County Transportation Commission has not made La Conchita ramps a top priority.

His guess on when the area might get ramps of its own: "It won't be before 2010," Charbonneau says. "I'd be willing to bet on that."

Prospects

Ramps or no ramps, La Conchita is changing. Several lots that have been idle for decades now sprout signs signaling construction work. Several other residents are replacing their mobile homes with permanent houses.

"Gradually, all the lots are disappearing," Mike Scheck says.

New mobile homes have been banned by the county for 21 years now, and eventually all the old ones will be gone.

"It's really a sleeper, as far as beach property goes, because a lot of people don't take the trouble to get off the freeway and look into it," says Susan Herrick, a manager for Don Carlton Realty in Ventura.

She estimates that La Conchita housing values vary from $200,000 to $500,000--sometimes on the same block. At the low end are the one-story bungalows and properties with mobile homes on them; at the high end, the newer, roomier houses with second-story views.

The Scheidmans live in a double-wide trailer on Fillmore Street, with a photo of George and Barbara Bush taped to one wall above a series of cat postcards.

Rudy Scheidman, 86 and fighting throat cancer, spends most of his time in bed. Mike Scheck and other neighbors help Margaret shop, care for her husband and keep the house up--"the best neighbors in the world," Margaret says.

On a waning weekday afternoon, Cherie Chako rolls home from her Santa Barbara commute. Lorence Burndorf returns from another day in Ventura. And Robin Lovelady finishes her work in the greenery and strolls the three blocks home to her husband and children.

"We don't ever want to leave," Lovelady says.

Margaret Scheidman sits in her front room and peers down the block to the freeway and the sea. The cars zoom by.

If you live here, she says, "you don't hear them. The only thing that you can hear is the whistle on the train."

LA CONCHITABY THE NUMBERS

* La Conchitans make up most of county Elections Precinct 6250, which at last count, in November, included 295 Republicans, 213 Democrats, 43 nonpartisans, 9 American Independents, 3 Greens, 2 Peace and Freedom Party members, 1 Libertarian and 1 "miscellaneous" voter.

* In the 1990 Census, federal officials counted La Conchita as part of Unaffiliated Tract 12.05, which also includes several dozen pricey beachfront homes along Rincon Point and Solimar Beach. In the tract, census officials counted 1,195 residents--1,007 white, 173 Latino, 10 Asian, 1 black and 4 listed as "other." Those residents included 265 children and 455 occupied dwellings. Of these, 309 of the dwellings were owner-occupied and 146 were rented.

* Of 242 homeowners in and near La Conchita who estimated the value of their residences for the census, 134 cited values of $500,000 or more. Another 91 offered estimates between $100,000 and $400,000. One said less than $15,000.

CIVICS, LA CONCHITA STYLE

* If tourists speed, says resident Jenny Oren, sometimes someone lays down wooden planks across the frontage road to keep them from driving too fast.

* If strangers linger, says resident Mike Scheck, neighbors watch closely and "look out for each other."

* If a community controversy arises, says resident Clarence Dean, he might convene a meeting of the La Conchita Community Assn. Dean, who serves as association president, held his last meeting 1 1/2 years ago on the subject of highway traffic.

* And if a toxic waste spill in Seacliff closes the Ventura Freeway to traffic, the neighborhood children take over the highway with their skateboards, bicycles, dogs and Frisbees.

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