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Del Mar: On and off the fast track

Special to The Times

Beginnings

The community was founded in 1885 by Jacob Taylor, whom the local historical society describes as “a dynamic visionary who pictured Del Mar as a seaside resort for the rich and famous.” The centerpiece of Taylor’s vision was his Casa del Mar hotel-resort -- which burned to the ground five years after it was built, prompting him to leave Del Mar and never return.

Del Mar was still a village of just a few hundred when the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club opened in 1937 and began drawing the Hollywood set. Actors Pat O’Brien, Jimmy Durante and Desi Arnaz all bought summer homes here. Seabiscuit raced Ligaroti in Del Mar in 1938, bringing national attention to the sleepy burg.

The postwar growth spurt included an influx of faculty from nearby UC San Diego, which may account for Del Mar’s reputation as a liberal bastion in largely Republican northern San Diego County.

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Since 1990, Del Mar’s population has dropped about 10% from the 4,800 or so people counted that year, as new buyers build one large house where two or three smaller homes once stood, and as what one Realtor calls the “Hamptonization of Del Mar” -- more houses being used as second and third residences -- continues.

What it’s about

The salty air is always fresh, the ocean views are blissful, and if it weren’t for the persistent flow of out-of-towners looking for a shortcut to the racetrack and fairgrounds, you might think you’d found Camelot. It’s been almost 70 years since Crosby co-founded the track’s Turf Club and crooned “where the turf meets the surf down in old Del Mar” to market his investment. The track kicks off its season on Wednesday. Once again, Del Mar residents brace for their summer version of spring break, counting the days until the race season is over and the quiet atmosphere they cherish returns.

Insiders’ view

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Scratch any longtime Del Mar resident and you’re likely to find someone counting his blessings at buying here and buying early. “We keep saying the same thing,” said Benny Landman, a Coldwell Banker Realtor who has lived here since 1992. “We are so lucky to be here.”

David Goodell remembers the day 32 years ago when, having just bought his house, he walked into a local liquor store and was offered a line of free credit.

“It’s still that same small town,” Goodell said, “just a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful place to live.”

That comfy small-town atmosphere exists alongside 3 1/2 miles of beaches, including one where dogs run free. The town is divided into two areas: the flat, sandy and sunny beach colony that borders the oceanfront and what is known as “old Del Mar” or “the village” -- the tree-shrouded areas that crawl up the hills and over the canyons. Residents in both areas can walk to restaurants and shops. Around town you’ll hear residents saying that if they didn’t need to fill the gas tank (the last station closed in the last year) or go to a movie, they’d never need to leave Del Mar.

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Housing stock

So, what price paradise? If you have to ask ... $50 million buys a 10,700-square-foot beachfront residence with two guesthouses, a health spa, a theater, a pool, a tennis court and a greenhouse. You won’t get in the door unless Realtors believe you can afford it. But any poor wretch with Internet access can ogle pictures at realtor.com/prop/1049319300.

Only about 50 properties sit “on the sand” in Del Mar. In March, in the most recent sale of beachfront property listed with the Multiple Listing Service, a 7,100-square-foot lot fetched a cool $18 million. That’s $2,535 a square foot for the dirt -- and the three-story, three-bedroom, three-bathroom house that happened to come with it.

On the market now in the beach colony is an 1,800-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath cottage with wood-beam ceilings and paneled walls. Built in 1953 on a 4,800-square-foot lot two blocks from the ocean, it is listed for $2.495 million.

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Across town, a four-bedroom, three-bath, three-story town house is listed for $1.5 million. It is one block from the ocean bluffs and nine blocks from the village.

Closer to the center of town is a 2,220-square-foot Craftsman-style house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms on a 10,100-square-foot lot. It’s the first time this house, which features a fully remodeled European kitchen, has been on the market since 1970. It’s yours for $1.995 million. No ocean views.

Good news, bad news

Views and trees are sacrosanct in Del Mar -- especially the Torrey pines, the rarest pine in North America. Found only on a narrow strip along the San Diego coast just south of Del Mar and on Santa Rosa Island, these trees usually grow slowly and stunted in dry, sandy soil. But water them regularly and voila, fast-growing and very tall trees spring up.

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Although trimming and pruning are allowed, a local ordinance strictly limits the removal of healthy trees. Court battles have been waged and urban legends abound about fast-growing trees maliciously planted to block neighbors’ views and about apparently healthy trees that mysteriously took sick and died.

Report card

Del Mar children through sixth grade attend either Del Mar Heights School, which scored 929 out of a possible 1,000 on the 2005 Academic Performance Index Base Report, or Del Mar Hills Academy of Arts & Sciences, which scored 899. Earl Warren Middle School scored 885.

High school students can attend Torrey Pines, a California Distinguished School with 3,100 students and test scores of 821, or the smaller Canyon Crest Academy, a 3-year-old public school emphasizing visual and performing arts, with test scores of 842.

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Sources: www.camoves.com/benny.landman; api.cde.ca.gov.


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