Schools, Orderly Growth Attract Buyers : Thousand Oaks: City on eastern edge of Ventura County offers clean air, ocean breezes and safe neighborhoods--at a price.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Price is a free-lance writer who lives in Santa Barbara

When a Hollywood special-effects job lured Jim Mini from New York, the biggest decision facing Mini, his wife and two children was where to live.

"It was a process of elimination," said Mini, whose family finally ended up choosing Thousand Oaks, a city of 105,000 on the eastern edge of Ventura County.

During the search, the Minis considered, and decided against, Orange County (too crowded), Van Nuys (too polluted), Woodland Hills and Calabasas (too hot).

When they moved to Thousand Oaks, the Minis found they had moved to a place where "the family comes first," Mini said. "You can't go more than a half-mile without seeing a community park. You see lots of mothers and fathers playing with their kids."

That was the good news. But, when the family was ready to purchase a home, they got what Mini called "sticker shock." Their 2,200-square-foot home in Hyde Park, 75 miles north of New York City, sold for $160,000. But their 2,800-square-foot home in Thousand Oaks cost them $298,000.

"My mortgage is twice what it was in New York," Mini said.

The good news/bad news aspects of Thousand Oaks are familiar to Wally Malesh, a realtor with Coldwell Banker Town & Country.

Malesh is happy about the highly rated public schools, where his own two children have been educated. The Ohio native is excited about youth soccer, youth football, the "strong sense of family." And he's aware of the cost of it all.

"(Thousand Oaks) tends to be a little bit on the pricey side," Malesh admitted. "It's not necessarily the most affordable community to live in."

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Recent figures show the median listed price for a home in the area to be $279,000, with a median selling price of $264,000. Starting at about $85,000, you can get a modest two-bedroom, one-bath condo in Thousand Oaks. Single-family homes start about $150,000 and go all the way up to the multimillion-dollar range.

And as they have elsewhere in the Southland, home prices in Thousand Oaks have fallen over the last few years. But that doesn't worry Gene Maiden. He bought his home 21 years ago for $40,000 (which, he said, "seemed like a lot at the time") and has seen its value soar to $250,000, and then slide downward quite a ways. But so what, he figures.

"Even if it goes down to $10, it doesn't make any difference," Maiden said. "I don't have any plans to go any place."

While neighbors driving by Maiden's 2,000-square-foot, single-story ranch may not know it, the inside of the home has been transformed, with a marble entry hall, a couple of Greek columns and a new fireplace with a carved wood mantle.

What Maiden, an antique print dealer and a bachelor, likes about the area is the rural feeling, the proximity to entertainment in Los Angeles and the ocean breezes that swoosh through from the Santa Monica Mountains every afternoon.

That Maiden is still satisfied with Thousand Oaks is significant, considering he has seen the population increase from 15,000 when he first came to town almost 30 years ago, to more than 100,000 today. "It's still a very pleasant place to live," he said.

Others have also noticed how pleasant Thousand Oaks is. A recent survey by Zero Population Growth named Thousand Oaks one of the best places in Southern California for children, second only to Huntington Beach. And the city consistently places at or near the top of the list of the country's safest communities.

According to Sgt. Ray Nagel of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department, the area's low crime rate is because of two factors: 1--strong policing, and 2--support of the community. "There's no way we can do it on our own," Nagel said, citing support by merchants, the city council, Neighborhood Watch groups and the Crime Stoppers program.

Still, though the area is safer than most, "We are not immune to gang activity," Nagel said. Indeed, the community was shook up when a gang-related shooting last year left three local teen-agers wounded and one dead.

But according to most accounts, these problems are new and not yet overwhelming. Even though it's only 25 miles from one of the largest metropolitan centers in the world, Thousand Oaks still feels calm and safe. (The city suffered only "minimal damage" in the Northridge earthquake, realtor Malesh said. Some 1,200 homes were inspected by the city; only 10 needed repairs to restore them to habitability.)

Much of the credit for Thousand Oaks evolution as a pleasant place to live goes to the Janss family, which developed about 20% of the land in the city.

The Janss Corp.'s idea in the late 1950s--when the land that would become Thousand Oaks was mostly large ranches--was to create a "total community" on its 10,000 acres of ranch land. By 1961, the area had a population of 17,000 and two shopping centers, an industrial park, schools, churches and a four-year liberal arts college, California Lutheran University. The walled neighborhoods were built around parks and elementary schools. Since the City of Thousand Oaks was incorporated in 1964, the concept of planned development has remained strong.

All this has been fine for Walt Schaedle, who moved his family to Thousand Oaks in 1963 from Van Nuys, when a doctor thought it might be smog that was causing the hay fever and asthma that brought Schaedle's wife and daughter so much misery.

"(Thousand Oaks) was pretty smog free," Schaedle said of those days. "You could probably count the number of smoggy days in a year on one hand."

After Schaedle's children grew up and his wife died, he remarried, sold the family home and moved to a townhouse in nearby Westlake Village. There, he enjoys his electric boat, catch-and-release bass fishing, the soft green of the weeping willows and watching someone else cut the lawns. At one time an engineer, Schaedle now owns a courier company in Thousand Oaks and has served as chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and as president of the historical society.

"I've gotten a lot out of the community," Schaedle said. "I decided to give a little back."

While Schaedle is pleased with Thousand Oaks' rural feeling, he also favors what he calls "good, orderly development," especially to perk up the business climate. The area has lost some big employers in the last few years, including Northrop, which moved out and took with it 1,200 jobs.

Big employers still in the area include Jafra, GTE Systems, Blue Cross and Baxter Pharmaceutical. Another Thousand Oaks pharmaceutical company, Amgen Inc., recently announced it expects to add 1,000 jobs during 1994.

It was a job that brought Bob Hammer and his family West from Kansas City in 1985. To be sure, the job with First Interstate Bank was enticing, but it was not the main impetus for the move. "We accepted the position largely because of Thousand Oaks," Hammer said.

The family's main desires were for a safe community and good schools. "And, in fact, we were right about that," said Hammer, whose oldest daughter is attending Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and whose youngest daughter is finishing up high school.

In Hammer's opinion, the city's commitment to its rural flavor goes a bit far. "Frankly I think we could open up a little more," he said. "I'm concerned with creating jobs. There are a lot of people here who are not doing well, who are laid off from aerospace jobs, who'll never work in that industry again."

Some of the laid-off workers could open small businesses and help build the economy, Hammer believes, if the city officials would be a bit more helpful. And officials are becoming more so, he said. "They're starting to listen to small-business people now, because that's where the jobs come from."

Even though he now works as an international banking consultant and could live anywhere, Hammer has no plans to leave Thousand Oaks. "We happen to like where we're at," he said.

That's the exact sentiment of Maiden, who travels the globe looking for antique prints. "I can't think of anywhere else in the world I'd rather be," he said.

At a Glance

Population 1993 estimate: 107,294 1980-90 change: 20.6%

Annual income Per capita: 29,472 Median household: 66,408

Household distribution Less than $30,000: 11.5% $30,000 - $60,000: 24.1% $60,000 - $100,000: 36.3% $100,000 - $150,000: 18.3% $150,000 +: 9.8%

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