When Kathy Anderson graduated from college, she left her parents’ house for good.
Turns out, though, she didn’t move very far.
Anderson, 62, spent the rest of her life in a little house next to her childhood home on her family’s 1.24-acre property in Eastside Costa Mesa, which her parents bought for about $1,300 in the 1940s. The largely undeveloped residential parcel is one of the last of its kind in a city that’s nearly built-out.
Anderson has many memories of life in her Tustin Avenue home: She knows the story of every tree planted on the property, including one former Christmas tree that now stands three stories tall. She vividly remembers the horses she kept there, Little Thunder and Tao.
And the family members’ nicknames, written in 1964 on a wet cement curb in front of the house? They’re still there.
On Tuesday, Anderson’s residency in the one-bedroom bungalow will come to an end.
Costa Mesa-based Matt White Custom Homes bought the property in late 2012 for $3.55 million and is set to build 14 detached, single-family homes in a community there that they’re calling East Haven.
For years, offers poured in to the Andersons from developers who eyed the spot for new housing. After her mother’s death at age 92 in 2011, Anderson and her three siblings decided it was time to sell the land at 2157 and 2159 Tustin Ave.
For Anderson, selling was never about the money, which she split with her siblings. It was just time to move on, something she could finally do after putting behind the grief she felt over her mother’s death.
“I’ll sit on my couch and I’ll think, ‘My goodness! A young mom is going to be here in the house of her dreams, with a couple of kids. She’ll be happy as peaches and cream on this spot,’” Anderson said.
“That’s a good feeling to pass to the community.”
There is one nuisance she’ll be glad not to have anymore: “I will say, I will not miss the gophers!”
The Anderson property probably has the longest driveway in all of Costa Mesa. The cracked and rustic path leads to the two shaded, postwar bungalows there.
Each is a former Santa Ana Army Air Base building that survived the base’s 1946 decommissioning. The one where Anderson stayed as an adult is about 900 square feet. The other, where her parents lived out their days, has three bedrooms and two bathrooms in 1,144 square feet.
The grassy and dusty open space, which wasn’t officially incorporated into the city of Costa Mesa until the 1990s, stands in contrast to the surrounding tract homes, manicured lawns and more modern buildings around it. For the Andersons, though, it’s long been a restful respite.
“Don’t you come right here and feel like you’re in the country?” Anderson asked, pointing to the open space at nearby Jordan Park and Kaiser Elementary School.
The family originally had 2.5 acres, but Kaiser took half through eminent domain when the school was being built.
Anderson’s father, Orby, was a Texas native and, for a time, served as the executive chef at the Santa Ana Country Club.
Her mother, Margaret, also a native Texan, worked for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District. She was one of the first employees at Estancia High School.
Anderson also taught at Liberty Christian School in Huntington Beach.
Her treasure trove of old family photos show a young Anderson enjoying life. In one, she’s flying a kite in front of the two houses — it’s a black-and-white peek into a bygone 1950s Orange County.
By the 1990s, Orby was almost convinced that it was time to sell.
“My mom said no,” Anderson recalled. “It’s my mom’s home. She’s a very country, outdoors person. She grew up on the prairie, so she didn’t want to give up her land.”
After her dad died at age 83, she and her mom were the only ones left on the property. The two were close and traveled the world together.
“I didn’t want to leave my mom all by herself,” Anderson said. “She was a great mom. Why would I want to abandon her, ya know?”
Taking care of the land was important for Margaret. Right until her death, she tended her gardens, trimmed the trees and used a riding lawn mower.
By the 2000s and through the recession, Kathy and Margaret Anderson often found themselves listening to interested developers. They’d take their business cards and collect them in a box.
“At the height at the boom, before the big crash,” Anderson said, “two and three times a week they were just comin’ and bringing the cards.”
Success at Midtown
Of all the interested parties, Matt White of Matt White Custom Homes was viewed as the best. In a letter to the Planning Commission, the family credits his continued interest in the property.
“We believe Matt White to be an honest and capable builder,” three of the Anderson siblings wrote in their letter. “We have reviewed his development proposal and feel his project will be an attractive one that will provide much-needed housing for 14 families.”
White, a Newport Harbor High School graduate and Newport Beach resident, cites the success of another residential project, Midtown, on Thurin Street in Westside Costa Mesa. Like East Haven, Midtown is also an infill development — new construction surrounded by established areas.
“Midtown was successful on numerous fronts,” White said. “Primarily, it replaced an older, dilapidated apartment building with 10 new homes that were offered for sale at a price point that was appealing to first-time buyers.”
The energy-efficient features and modern design of the homes, White added, “offered a tremendous visual improvement and truly enhanced the existing area.” Furthermore, the homes sold quickly.
When the commission reviewed plans for East Haven in April, Midtown residents wrote to the planners, urging them to give another OK to White.
“The development at Midtown has led to ‘front-porch’ living,” Trevor Walker wrote. “We spend a tremendous amount of time with each other and take pride in our community.”
David and Luita Auslam added in a letter: “Matt White has been to visit our community regularly since the project was completed. As residents of Midtown, we feel he is still vested in these homes.”
Privacy and density concerns
During the approval process for East Haven, as city officials listened to concerns about the project, there was a sense of déjà vu in the council chambers. Among the folks against it were those who live in a small community next door. When those houses went up in the 1990s, similar, if the not same, objections were raised: density, traffic, parking, noise.
With East Haven, some of those concerns and more were addressed; others were downplayed.
Jim Little has had one overriding concern: privacy. For 35 years, he has lived on the edge of Windward Lane in Newport Beach, across the street from the Anderson property.
Little said East Haven’s second-story homes that are closest to Tustin will directly look onto his backyard patio and pool area.
“There is where we socialize, with family get-togethers and whatnot,” he said. “Our privacy is gonna be gone.”
He’s not entirely sure what his solution is now that the project is approved. He might grow out some of the existing plants to better conceal his backyard.
“It’s done now,” Little said, “and I just have to fix it.”
Residents along Catalina Shores, a 12-unit development next to the Anderson property, also had qualms about the project. Jonathan Atha, president of the area’s homeowners association, said the residents were hoping for less density. That was their bigger concern, more than additional traffic or loss of privacy, he said.
“We like Matt White,” Atha said. “We met with him. We think he’s great ... really. What it came to for us was just hoping we could get a little more backyard space [at East Haven].
“One of the ways we thought that might happen was for him to build fewer but larger homes worth more and space it out a little more.”
After the Planning Commission approved East Haven and granted some variances on a 4-0 vote — Commissioner Jeff Mathews abstained because he owns property nearby — Atha appealed the decision to the City Council, which discussed it in May.
Again, plenty of interested parties spoke at the council meeting against the project, expressing worries about too many homes in too small a place — city zoning code permits the 14 homes there — increased traffic, construction noise, parking problems, small side yards and even where the houses’ trash cans will go.
Those were the “same complaints” about the Catalina Shores project in the 1990s, Councilman Gary Monahan said.
“It’s no different,” Mayor Jim Righeimer added. “It’s the same items every time.”
The council eventually upheld the commission’s approval of the project on a 3-2 vote, with Councilwomen Sandy Genis and Wendy Leece dissenting.
Genis called for an ordinance that would deal with future subdividing of small lots. Moreover, the city shouldn’t be issuing such variances in a “make it up as you go along zoning” style, she said.
Atha acknowledged that he and his allies didn’t get all that they wanted, but he didn’t think anyone was crushed about it.
“I’ve been here 11 years,” he said. “Most of the people on this street are original owners, 16 years. It’s shocking that we made it this long without somebody behind us. ... I’m glad we went there and at least broached the subject.”
‘Keeping the lights on’
Since White bought the property in October 2012, Anderson has been allowed to stay there until things get sorted out and finalized.
“Matt’s a good guy,” Anderson said. “He’s been very kind to me. He’s not pushing me out. I’m keeping the lights on, watching over the property.”
Anderson said she will be moved out by Tuesday and the utilities will be shut off Wednesday. Then comes the demolition, although White isn’t calling it that.
He’s calling it a “house removal,” Anderson said with a laugh.
“My team and I have put a lot of time and energy into the process,” White said. “It really has been a labor of love. ... As anyone who knows me can attest, I am a stickler for details and tend to get personally invested in the minutiae because it’s exciting to me and ultimately is a reflection of me and my team.
“In fact, we all are personally invested in getting it right.”
Using the money from the sale, Anderson is moving across town to a small house she bought on Congress Street in the Westside. It’s still being worked on, but she’s already smitten with the location, her new neighbors, her new trees and her proximity to her niece on nearby Governor Street.
“So I think I am coming out on the other side,” she said. “And it ought to be 20 or 30 years for me there too.”