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Neighborhood Spotlight: La Habra Heights holds on to a rural vibe in the midst of urbanization

The canyon that bisects La Habra Heights, cutting through the Puente Hills and connecting the coastal plains of Orange County with the San Gabriel Valley, gave the town its name. Derived from "la abra," the Spanish moniker for the low mountain pass, La Habra was also the name given the original Mexican land grant from which the town was eventually carved.

The rancho’s first owner took possession in 1839 and sold it to Andres Pico, the Californio general who negotiated the end of the Mexican-American War in California before going on to have a long career in state politics.

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Eventually the rancho became part of the vast land holdings of the famed cattle tycoon Abel Stearns. At the height of his reign as the region’s wealthiest landowner, his empire encompassed nearly 200,000 acres, stretching from the La Habra Rancho to the Pacific Ocean.

(Los Angeles Times)

Stearns’ ranching business collapsed during the devastating drought of the 1860s, which led to a 70% decrease in the cattle herds of Los Angeles County alone. He lost the bulk of his land, including La Habra, which was subdivided and sold in large part to Basque sheepherders — their drought-resistant flocks soon roamed where vast herds of thirsty cattle once grazed.

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By 1919, the 3,500 acres that would become La Habra Heights belonged to developer Edwin G. Hart. It was Hart who brought water to the canyon and who marketed the area as the “Second Beverly Hills.”

During his guidance, the community gained a golf course, became a center of avocado farming and established an improvement association that sought to protect the semirural character of the Heights.

For example, the association persuaded the county Planning Commission to pass zoning rules in 1949 that set the minimum size of all lots at one acre, while allowing agricultural uses to continue. Those regulations also strictly limited commercial development, forbidding any roadside stands or signs, according to the official history of the Heights, which incorporated as a city in 1978.

Zoning also enshrines the ability of city residents to keep and ride horses, a popular pastime in the Heights, which features a horse in its official seal and boasts a long-running riding club known as the Highland Riders.

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Neighborhood highlights

Green acres: La Habra Heights may be surrounded by urban sprawl, but avocados still grow on many of its hillsides, and the city hosts an annual avocado festival.

Happy trails: Whether you like to experience the joys of nature on foot or from the saddle of a horse, the hills of La Habra Heights are crisscrossed with scenic trails.

Elbow room: For those looking to spread out a little, the sizable lots of La Habra Heights offer room to roam for people and horses alike.

Neighborhood challenges

Sticker shock: Although some deals can be found on the far north end of the city, the vast majority of homes in La Habra Heights are going for more than $1 million.

Expert insight

Jan Fiore, who has two decades of experience in La Habra Heights, said the city has maintained its rural vibe thanks to its large lots and lack of streetlights and sidewalks.

“People are attracted to the privacy and space,” Fiore said, adding that residents fill their properties with horses, llamas, orchards and agriculture. “All lots have to be at least an acre, and you can’t build two houses on a lot.”

Because there’s no tract housing, every property is unique. Build sizes range from 800 square feet all the way up to 10,000 to 15,000 square feet. Most houses, however, span around 3,300 square feet.

Market snapshot

In the 90631 ZIP Code, based on 45 sales, the median price for single-family homes in November was $615,000, down 5% year over year, according to CoreLogic. That ZIP code also includes parts of La Habra and Fullerton, however.

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Report card

Three schools around La Habra Heights scored above 900 on the 2013 Academic Performance Index: Los Molinos Elementary at 953, Grazide Elementary at 952 and Murphy Ranch Elementary at 936.

High schools in the area include La Serna High, which scored 845, and La Habra High, which scored 796.

Times staff writer Jack Flemming contributed to this report.

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