Nestled between the Palos Verdes Peninsula’s red-tiled roofs and multistory mansions is a fiercely private community frozen in time.
Drivers must yield to horses. Resident dogs roam freely--those that don’t bite, that is--as per a city ordinance.
Single-story ranch homes, the only kind around, are painted white as decreed by developer A.E. Hanson 75 years ago. The color, Hanson once wrote, was “to fit in with the emerald green of the new grain in the spring and would harmonize with the bare earth after the hay was baled in the fall.”
“Can you beat this?” asked resident Jim Roberts on a recent afternoon, waving an arm toward quiet canyons beyond his gazebo. “When I walk there at night and look straight up, I can actually see the stars.”
Such is life in Rolling Hills, and to Roberts the city is like a slice of heaven--a slice that is reserved for him and 1,870 other residents who live within gates that since 1936 have kept everybody else out.
The city’s simple architecture and laid-back lifestyle also understate its wealth, a wealth evidenced by its large lots, seclusion and some sweeping views. Based on median home prices, Rolling Hills is the richest municipality in Southern California, according to an annual survey by Worth magazine. The city ranks 10th nationwide, trailed distantly by Beverly Hills, which ranks 46th.
“The minute you go through those gates you feel like you’ve returned to paradise,” said Mayor Jody Murdock. It’s strictly a bedroom community, she adds. There are no businesses or schools--only homes.
Even City Hall--Rolling Hills incorporated in 1957--and the Rolling Hills Community Assn., which maintains the city’s privately built roads and strict architectural standards, are outside one of the three staffed gates. Added Murdock: “It’s about being a beautiful place to live and having open space around you and privacy.”
But Rolling Hills residents’ emphasis on preserving the status quo occasionally rankles their neighbors. For example, public transit, including that for area high school students, must go around Rolling Hills rather than through it, adding 20 or more minutes to a trip. A major Rancho Palos Verdes street--Crest Road--is divided by Rolling Hills.
The Rancho Palos Verdes City Council is expected to ask Rolling Hills this fall to replace septic tanks with sewers to reduce the risk of landslides in an area long known for slipping earth. But officials from both cities say Rolling Hills is likely to say no.
Even so, other city officials on the Palos Verdes Peninsula say they get along with their Rolling Hills counterparts, who each year give them tens of thousands of dollars in public road money they can’t use, given the private status of the city’s roads. Rolling Hills shares an arrangement with Rolling Hills Estates and Rancho Palos Verdes for law enforcement with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Rolling Hills also is a member of the South Bay Cities Council of Governments, albeit an often absent one.
Gates Not Intended to Offend Outsiders
“They’ve always been very friendly and easy to deal with,” said Rancho Palos Verdes Councilman John McTaggart. Still, there was the time his daughter was house-sitting in Rolling Hills and called him frantically to report a leak. Dad rushed to the rescue.
“I was turned away at the gate because I was riding my motorcycle,” he recalled with amusement. “On their private roads, they don’t allow outsiders to ride a motorcycle.
“It was annoying, but I went home to get my car. Luckily, when I got home, my daughter had called back to tell me there was no leak.”
The staffed gates, along with several others that are unmanned, aren’t meant to offend outsiders, said Murdock and former Mayor Gordana Swanson. Rather, they have helped Rolling Hills preserve its down-to-earth character.
The gates also have helped propel Rolling Hills to the top ranks of the nation’s richest communities, area Realtors say, a designation Rolling Hills officials are far less comfortable with.
“There is nothing fancy about Rolling Hills,” Swanson said. “We don’t have sidewalks. We have very narrow streets that all end in cul-de-sacs. If somebody even tries to be ostentatious in this community, they would feel out of place.”
That is how Hanson envisioned his creation, according to his book, “Rolling Hills, the Early Years.” Hanson, who died in 1986 at age 85, was one of the region’s preeminent landscape architects, known for his vision, drive and appreciation of simplicity.
“I had talked to enough people from the Long Beach-Redondo area so that I knew what they wanted,” he wrote. “They wanted a piece of land large enough that they wouldn’t hear their neighbor’s radio; a place where they could have a garden or keep a horse; they wanted to get out of a congested area away from traffic; they wanted fresh air and above all else, they wanted privacy and elbow room.
“On the other hand, they would not pay more than they would have to pay for a good residential lot. One could buy an acre of land, a beautiful little house, landscaped with full-grown olive trees--all for $8,750.”
In inflation-adjusted dollars, that translates to $112,050, but the median price of a home in Rolling Hills in 2000 was $1.61 million, according to the Worth survey. Democratic Rep. Jane Harman of Venice sold her four-bedroom, five-bath Rolling Hills home in April for $4.25 million, $1.75 million more than she paid for it in 1994.
The high price tag for Rolling Hills properties comes as no surprise to Re/Max Palos Verdes Realtor Jackie Crowley, who says buyers looking for privacy and lots of space for their children and pets will find the best peninsula buy in Rolling Hills.
“I have to truly say if money was no object . . . I would buy a piece of ground and build on it there because the ground and house would make it worth the value,” she said.
Incorporated gated cities like Rolling Hills remain a rarity despite a boom in planned communities in general, said Cliff Treese, past president of the Community Association Institute in Washington, D.C. There are maybe 300 nationwide, he estimated. Two are in Los Angeles County: Rolling Hills and the wealthy, horsy enclave of Hidden Hills, another Hanson project, incorporated in 1961.
Some social scientists question the desirability of gated cities at a time when the gap is widening between the rich and poor.
“This is essentially selfishness,” said USC professor Michael Dear, director of the Southern California Studies Center. “It allows a certain secession by the rich, a secession by the successful away from their responsibilities and obligations.”
Affordable Homes Farmed Out Elsewhere
For example, Rolling Hills, like many other wealthy municipalities throughout California, has clashed with state mandates for affordable housing.
The city is forbidden by covenants and restrictions to build anything but single-family homes, so instead it has given more than $226,000 to nearby Lomita and Rancho Palos Verdes over the last 20 years to address low-income housing issues in those cities. But state officials have argued that the law requires that such units be built in Rolling Hills.
Such debates are left outside Rolling Hills, however, if City Council meetings in recent months are any indication. Few, if any residents show up and one meeting last month lasted a mere 15 minutes. “That’s fast even for us,” Murdock said jokingly.
This summer’s burning issues--such as they are--included an ongoing evaluation of whether utility poles should be replaced by underground lines and a recently adopted exterior light ordinance, which requires activated security lighting to switch off in five minutes or less. It sounds painfully routine, but it’s one key to the area’s charm.
“Nighttime darkness in the city contributes significantly to the unique, tranquil rural environment of the community, creates a more natural setting for wildlife, enhances the quality of life and adds to property values,” city officials wrote in their June newsletter.
“The view is also a pleasure,” said eight-year resident Akaya Sakurai, whose sweeping vista includes Santa Catalina Island on a clear day. She and her husband, Fred, “feel safe and secure.”
And, like longtime resident Roberts, she can enjoy the stars at night.
Los Angeles Times researcher Penny Love contributed to this story.