Nonconformist Neighbors : Communities: Ventu Park’s odd landscape-- and its freedom from municipal oversight--appeal to those who like to do their own thing.
Fred Bedik thought that he was giving his wife, Vicki, an impossible challenge when he presented her with his checklist of requirements for buying a home in Thousand Oaks.
It was 1972 and he wanted an older house on a dirt road, in a nonconformist neighborhood, with a fireplace and a modern kitchen. A lot to expect from a suburb filled with tract homes.
“He figured I’d never find it,” Vicki Bedik said, sitting in her book-filled living room in Ventu Park. “Three days.”
In this hilly, twisty, frequently funky neighborhood, it’s not all that surprising that the Bediks should find their ideal home. After all, when Ventu Park was initially advertised in brochures, back in 1923, it was offered to the public as the place Where Dreams Come True.
It started as a cross between a resort and a campground, with scraps of land selling for $1 per 100 square feet, and has evolved into a unique blend of hillside estates, renovated bungalows and modest homes that sometimes seem more Berkeley Hills than Thousand Oaks.
Ventu Park runs straight up the hillside from Lynn Road and west toward the Santa Monica Mountains. It is bordered to the south by Heavenly Valley Road and the north by Barranca Road.
“The neighborhood is a mixture of everything from rednecks to young professionals,” Vicki Bedik said. “But all the people who live here march to their own drummer, no matter what category they fit into.”
Much of the nonconformity of the people who live in Ventu Park may come from the nonconformity of the land. Many of the house sites are ridiculously small and oddly shaped. Wedged against each other at weird angles, homes in this neighborhood teeter on the edge of barrancas and clamber up steep hillsides. They defy all rules of sensible city planning.
Although Ventu Park appears from an outside glance to be part of Thousand Oaks, only five of its streets are part of the city. The rest of the community is technically unincorporated Ventura County land.
So the rules are a little different. Want to paint your house bright violet? Go right ahead. Want to leave the rusting hulk of an Army Jeep in your back yard? Feel free to do so. The residents of Ventu Park do things in their own style, and they like it that way. They like being different.
“We like it here because it is more diverse than the rest of Thousand Oaks,” said Marvin Lieberman, a UCLA economics professor who moved to Heavenly Valley Road four years ago from San Francisco with his wife, Susan.
“You can decorate your house with rotting school buses or whatever you like,” he said sardonically.
Sam Cassady moved to Ventu Park in 1971. At that time, he said, the neighborhood had a “hippie thing” going on. He raised two daughters there, both of whom now live just a block away. Once the attraction of the place catches you, it is hard to leave, he said.
“I always say, you either love it up here or you wouldn’t even consider it. Almost everybody up here, I don’t think they would live anywhere else.”
Although the neighborhood appears on maps as Ven-Tu Park--the name it originally had--most residents spell it Ventu Park and the road that cuts through it is also known as Ventu Park.
Winding around the narrow streets, one is just as likely to bump into a horse or a wandering hen as a person. There is a sense of fun and good humor to the place. In a clearing off Newbury Lane, a horse grazed peacefully while a faded sign advertising its corral as “Ventu Park’s Urban Renewal Project” flaps back and forth on a wooden post.
Neighbors here know each other well, having watched their children grow up together. Like Cassady’s two daughters, many people return to raise their children where they were raised.
“Sometimes I see their kids and I do a double take because they look just like their uncle did as a child,” Vicki Bedik said. Her 17-year-old son has already proclaimed his desire to keep the family house for himself.
Over the last 20 years, there have occasionally been whispers about incorporating the neighborhood into Thousand Oaks. City officials say they might consider an annexation, but only if the majority of residents want it. Cassady thinks that that’s unlikely.
“Everybody up here is a little peculiar,” Cassady said. “Because of the independent spirit and so on, I think they couldn’t get a majority in favor of annexing. And until we want to, I don’t think they are going to push it.”
Don Nelson, Thousand Oaks director of public works, said the area is so unorthodox, it could cause liability problems for the city if it were annexed.
“The city would have to look very cautiously at any annexation because of the infrastructure up there,” he said.
Most homes in Ventu Park get their water and sewer services from the city, he said. Until about 10 years ago, the neighborhood operated on septic tanks, but with so many houses in such a small area, the tanks became a health hazard.
“As a result of overflowing, we had raw sewage running down the streets in that area,” Nelson said. A special assessment charged to residents in the early 1980s helped finance the replacement of tanks with sewer lines.
The city recently installed a $5-million underground water tank with a 4-million-gallon capacity to supply Ventu Park and Kelley Estates, the development on the neighborhood’s northern border.
But the city generally stays out of the way of Ventu Park residents. Being outside the jurisdiction of Thousand Oaks allows residents to keep all sorts of creatures on their property. Neighborhood legend includes an elephant among the animals that have called Ventu Park home.
Tucked away at the end of Midbury Hill Road is Ventura County’s only licensed boarding facility exclusively for cats, the Blossom-Time Cattery. Denny and Laura Dayton own and manage the cattery, which offers a dog-free haven for felines whose masters have gone on vacation.
Beside having room to board 72 cats, the Daytons keep four goats--just for entertainment--a dove aviary, quackless ducks and two German shepherds who don’t much like the goats.
But they only own one cat.
“That’s all the cats we want,” Denny Dayton said with a soft laugh. “We just see cats all the time.”
The Daytons moved to Ventu Park in 1974, after their home in Thousand Oaks got too crowded with cats to conform to city regulations. They were breeding a type of cat called rag dolls and needed more room.
Ventu Park is filled with people who rejoice in being outsiders to the city.
Michael Green, who bought a 1947 bungalow high up on Ventu Park Road several years ago, said dealing with Ventura County’s building department is preferable to doing business with the city.
“I go to the county and tell them I want a permit to build a 10-car garage and they say, ‘OK, that’ll be $18. Just draw us up what you want to do,’ ” he said. “You go to the city of Thousand Oaks and tell them you want to put on a bathroom and they say, ‘Well, the permit is $10,000 and we’re going to send someone up there once a week to check on you.’ ”
Green said he and his wife, Cristina, a Romanian emigre, chose Ventu Park because they wanted a nice house and a good piece of land--even though they couldn’t quite afford both. Bit by bit, he has been renovating their tiny cottage. In the bedroom downstairs, a six-foot picture window looks out over the Conejo Valley.
“You can see all seven of the mountain ranges,” he said. “Looking out from the bed in the morning after a rain, you can see snow on the last three ridges. Typically to get a view like this, you have to spend $1 million on a home.”
Green said his house was built by a man who fancied himself the neighborhood fire chief, because at that time the house was the highest on the hill and fires could be spotted easily from its decks.
Like others on the hill, Green has a story to tell about the origin of the oddly shaped lots.
“I heard they used to give them away on the back of candy wrappers,” he said.
Brad Miller, who heads the Thousand Oaks Library’s special collection, said he couldn’t confirm that story or the one about Ventu Park homes being given away on the backs of matchbooks. But he did produce a real estate brochure from 1923, when the Ven-Tu Park Cabin Sites were built.
“Prices on the lots are so low that it is almost unbelievable,” the brochure reads. “In Ven-Tu Park a new paradise has indeed been unearthed.”
The lots ranged from $24 to $100, with the smallest only 2,500 square feet. They were offered as summer getaways and hunting cabins for residents of Los Angeles and Hollywood, “limited to the Caucasian race.” How the name was selected is a mystery, Miller said, but it is probably just a derivative of Ventura.
“Ven-Tu Park will appeal as soon as entered,” the brochure promised. “The charm grows the farther one wanders through its shady groves and over its picturesque ways. It offers a retreat to the tired man of affairs, where leaving the tumult and cares of the city behind him he can lose himself in its cool retreats.”
John Bross owns one of the original cabins on Ventu Park Road. While others have been remodeled and added onto, his is practically unchanged. It sits on a parcel made up of seven of the original lots.
Bross, a Newbury Park resident, is renovating the Ventu Park house as a summer cottage at his wife’s bidding. Despite its age--a newspaper he found inside the wallboards was dated 1924--the building has held up well, he said.
“I pulled off the wallboard to see if it was occupied by any critters or termites,” Bross said, chomping on a cigar. “But it is solid yet.”
A retired inspector for Northrop Corp., he found the house about 12 years ago.
“I decided, hey, that’ll give me something to do,” he said, walking around his grounds, fragrant with blooming jade plants.
Across the street from Bross, Joanne Johnson has painted her house a vivid shade of purple and placed an eye-popping purple gingerbread-house mailbox on a pedestal out front.
“I just like lavender,” Johnson said. “These earth-tone things, they’re just yeech.”
Although she discovered Ventu Park in 1978, it took the former Thousand Oaks resident until about two years ago to find a home on the hill.
There are a few disadvantages. For instance, a coyote snapped up her favorite cat not long ago and a raccoon made off with one of the pet turtles that roam her front yard.
The neighborhood has changed since she first saw it, she said. New homes in the styles more typical of Thousand Oaks have appeared on either side of the street, dwarfing the bungalows.
“I feel the scale of the environment is toward smaller houses up here,” Johnson said. “I don’t think those big homes belong.”
But as she stood on her deck in back, overlooking a deep canyon and a rushing creek, Johnson said she nonetheless feels that she has arrived at the perfect place.
“I feel that I’m on vacation all the time,” she said, “like someone is going to come along and tell me my two weeks is up.”