Twenty years ago, when Roger and Fran Davis bought their two-bedroom home in Summerland, they paid "nothing," she said. Well, actually about $25,000.
Back then, the sleepy hillside community--snuggled on the coast between Carpinteria and Montecito in Santa Barbara County--was not exactly prime territory, despite breathtaking ocean and island views. The unstable adobe soil was and is nearly impossible to cultivate and the steep hills and alley-width streets are hard to navigate. Then it was mostly an offbeat town of ramshackle houses inhabited by hippies, surfers and artists, as well as more conventional folk.
But all that was to change--fast--when the region's housing shortage caught up with the half-square-mile town.
In 1983, after nearly a decade-long building moratorium, the Summerland Water Board yielded to pressure from landowners and approved water meters for more than 200 vacant lots in the town, which had only 438 homes at the time.
The water board required that building had to begin within 18 months. And so began what would forever change the town "drastically and dramatically," said Fran Davis, a writer.
"It was a land rush, a gold rush," she recalled of the months of grading, sawing and hammering that filled the ocean air. "It went from a hippie, slow community with dogs sleeping in the streets to . . . a bedroom community of yuppies and oversized houses on small lots."
But all that didn't bother Richard Stackhouse, who moved to Summerland from the East Coast 12 years ago. He was attracted by "the eclecticness of it."
"It's also it's own town in the middle of a cosmopolitan area," he said. "Everybody knows everybody. It's one block from the ocean. You have the views and you still have the town right here and the services."
Stackhouse is responsible for three of the businesses that stretch along Lillie Avenue, affectionately known as "downtown." In the past seven years, Stackhouse has opened Stacky's Seaside Cafe, Summerland Hardware and General Store and the Summerland Country Store.
The downtown area is also home to the post office, where residents must go to collect their mail, a few restaurants and shops, a family-owned market with a German butcher who makes homemade sausages, a couple of bed-and-breakfast inns, a Presbyterian church, a fire station, and an abundance of antique shops that draw weekend crowds from north and south.
For Stackhouse, more people in town are not a problem.
"I think it's fine," he said of the growth, which he doesn't see continuing. "I don't think there's a lot of room, if you look around."
When Stackhouse bought his three-bedroom, two-bathroom home in 1980, he paid about $150,000. Today such a home would probably fetch $350,000 to $400,000.
At least part of the increase is due to the large, new homes in town that raised the property values for all.
"We went from not being able to sell vacant land to where, at the end (of the building boom), the lots were selling for $300,000 each," said real estate agent Lucille Lafond.
Indeed, the lowest priced property in Summerland recently was a two-bedroom fixer-upper listed for $295,000. Several condos were listed for $325,000 to $369,000. The highest-priced homes, usually on larger lots, are listed for about $850,000.
Who buys in Summerland?
"People who still like the beach atmosphere," said real estate agent David Sheeran, an associate with Jon Douglas Co. Realtors. "You can't find it anymore. We've got our post office. We've got our market. We've got the beach. What else do you need?"
But, he admitted, "to move into Summerland these days you have to be kind of rich."
That certainly wasn't the case 100 years ago when the town was founded and marketed by H. L. Williams as a spiritualist colony. Envisioning Summerland as a convention site for the sect whose members made contact with the dead, Williams divided the area into small lots intended as tent sites and sold the lots for $25 each.
Along with the spirits, another feature appeared about the same time in Summerland: oil. Before long, Summerland's beach was blanketed with oil derricks in what is considered the nation's first offshore oil development. While the derricks are gone, modern-day offshore platforms dot the ocean between the beach and the distant Channel Islands.
And about all that's left of the spiritualists are a few haunted houses, including the Big Yellow House restaurant--formerly the home of H. L. Williams' widow--a long-established eatery that many coast travelers have seen and frequented.
Today, even with the growth, Summerland's 1,800 residents live in relative safety, despite a gruesome rape-murder-mutilation that shocked locals three years ago.
Overall, however, "It's pretty low key down there," said Lt. Ron Hurd of the Santa Barbara County sheriff's department. "Most of this stuff is boring. No drive-by shootings. No gang stuff." Instead he cited a smattering of burglaries and auto thefts last year.
Among those building during the 1980s boom were Clint and Elizabeth Guyor. Their 2,000-square-foot Craftsman-style home on a double-sized lot was designed by the couple: he is a construction supervisor and she is owner of Elizabeth Fortner art galleries.
With plans to travel, the couple put the house on the market for $765,000 and built a couple of condos nearby, one of which they planned to move into. That's about the time "the bottom fell out" of the real estate market, Elizabeth Guyor said, and the couple have now taken their home off the market and rented out the condos until the market recovers. Whether in a house or in a condo, the couple are happy with their town.
"I've always wanted to live in Summerland," she said. "I brought my son here to the beach when he was small. There was a sense of community I liked."
Indeed, people who live on the Guyors' street get to know each other at a monthly potluck dinner.
Today, Elizabeth Guyor is heavily involved with the Summerland Citizens' Assn., which has drafted an extensive plan for limited growth in the future.
"Everybody feels strongly about this place," she said. "At the town meetings, you walk away shaking your head. But even though you disagree with someone, you can't help but love them."
Newcomers Marv and Gray Bauer, who bought a new, three-bedroom condo a year ago for more than $500,000, are also happy in their new town.
"I wouldn't like to live in a place that was all yuppies," said Marv, an attorney who previously lived in Santa Barbara and Carpinteria. He described the Summerland locals as "very relaxed, very laissez faire. "
"You don't get real involved with everyone's business," he said. "On the other hand, if you wave to someone you get a wave back. For the first time in a long time, at least I know my neighbors."
At a Glance
1991 estimate: 2,424
1980-91 change: +147.6%
Median age: 40.3 years
Per capita: 34,104
Median household: 57,700
Less than $20,000: 15.3%
$20,000 - $40,000: 21.4%
$40,000 - $75,000: 27.7%
$75,000 - $150,000: 24.9%
$150,000 +: 10.7%