Document 18 of 55.

Copyright 1992 The Times Mirror Company  
Los Angeles Times

February 9, 1992, Sunday, Valley Edition

SECTION: Metro; Part B; Page 3; Column 1

LENGTH: 2466 words



   A strange thing happened to Danna Gibson recently when she tried to visit Hidden Hills.

She had grown up in that town, spending the first 16 years of her life going to fiestas and barbecues, riding the bridle trails and swimming in the community pool. But when she drove up to the city gatehouse to visit the people who bought her parents' house, the guard wouldn't let her in.

"I was so angry and appalled," says Gibson, still steaming. "I knew more about that town than he knew or cared to know. And I could not get in that gate."

None of which comes as a surprise to the old-time residents of Hidden Hills, a small, elite community north of the Ventura Freeway and west of Woodland Hills. The place has gone through a lot of changes recently, they say, and not all of them have been for the better. There was a time when Hidden Hills was an informal, folksy rural community that catered to children, chickens, barbecues and riding. For a long time, it had gates only on weekends, and even then they were for traffic control, not crime.

Now, longtime residents say, the dynamic high-achievers moving to Hidden Hills in recent years have "upscaled" the community, bringing with them tennis courts, lap pools and expensive, oversize mansions with live-in gardeners and maids. "I am just astounded when I drive down Long Valley Road," former resident Diane Selby says. "You used to have farmhouses and ranch houses -- now you see castles."

And that, say some residents, is precisely the problem. "Our city was bought up by people far wealthier than we were, who didn't have the same values that we did in terms of why we were there," Selby says. "They were interested in possessions and security for their possessions and started to push for a 24- hour-a-day gate guard."

For some folks, the place hasn't been the same since.

Even so, few residents would give up their guarded gates, which are simultaneously the city's biggest public relations albatross and the best metaphor for what the city is today -- "its own little island in the middle of the jungle," Hidden Hills developer Jeff Kaman says.

Beyond the gate is Los Angeles, with it's random violence and urban decay, nerve-jangling freeway traffic and dark, terrifying cars that follow solitary women home at night. The gates, in contrast, give the 1,800 residents an almost tribal sense of community and act as a blessed, shining portal for weary commuters arriving home. "When you come through that gate, you have such a primal sense of relief," says Andy Andrews, a retired senior manager at IBM. "It's dark. It's quiet. You can shut the other world out."

And when you do, you find a lovely, two-square-mile island of security and tranquillity without street lights, sidewalks, office buildings, restaurants, markets or commercial establishments of any sort. Residents live in large houses on pleasant, winding streets, lined with feathery-leafed pepper trees and three-rail fences. Round-the-clock guards at the three entrances keep out uninvited visitors, and hidden video cameras photograph every driver and license plate. "We are the safest city in California," real estate agent Lois Landau says.

Although some outsiders chafe at the idea that they can't drive through Hidden Hills without an invitation, residents point out that the streets are privately owned and maintained. "They are an extension of our driveways," says Monty Fisher, Hidden Hills Community Assn. president. "How would you like strangers coming in and out of your driveway?"

It's hard to argue with success. Last year in Hidden Hills, there were no homicides, no rapes and no robberies. Aside from occasional home burglaries by local teen-agers, apparently the worst thing that happens is occasional assaults on gate guards by juvenile party crashers. In contrast to the drive-by shootings, graffiti and garish mini-malls beyond its gates, Hidden Hills' mood of peace and security is so pervasive that many parents freely allow their kids to walk to friends' houses after dark.

Kitty Andrews, a longtime resident who edits a local newsletter, says that until she discovered what the insurance consequences would be, she would park her car in her driveway with the keys inside. "When we first moved in we didn't even have a key to the front door," says ebullient Nina Gabriel, a producer for the Hidden Hills community theater. "The woman who lived here before us said she hadn't seen it in years."

Even people who don't like the direction in which Hidden Hills is moving would never deny that it is a great place to live. "You drive through the community and you feel as if you are in Cinderellaland," says Benjamin M. Reznik, an attorney for a developer who sued the city for financial losses after it canceled a low-income housing project. "You see rolling hills, children freely walking the streets and not being worried about crime or strangers. It's easy to create a community in those circumstances, but the social question is, what kind of a community are you creating?"

To residents, that's an easy question to answer. Just because Los Angeles has abdicated its responsibility to protect its citizens, educate its children and otherwise provide for the general welfare, that's no reason to follow down the same slippery slope. Whatever its faults, they point out, Hidden Hills is a functional community.

"They don't have any big-time porn dealers or dope dealers like you have in Malibu," says former City Atty. Wayne Lemieux. "It really is a family-oriented place -- if you can call 15,000-square-foot houses 'family-oriented.' "

"Aside from the fact that people live in big houses and make a lot of money," says Hidden Hills Players director J. D. Reichelderfer, "it is really like a small Midwestern town."

People know their neighbors. "When somebody moves in, you don't ask, 'Where do you live,' " says Andrews. "You ask, 'Whose house did you buy?' "

Because people aren't on guard, it's easy to make friends. Before coming to Hidden Hills, Gabriel lived "in a lovely house on a lovely street in Sherman Oaks, and I didn't know any of my neighbors." But in Hidden Hills, she says, she is so involved with community activities, she sometimes feels as if she's back in school: "It is like a combination of camp, college and what life was like in the dorm."

Many residents consider themselves so lucky, when people ask where they live they downplay the name. "I say I live near Calabasas," says Debra Perlo, head of the Round Meadow Elementary School Parent-Faculty Assn. "I don't want people to think I am a snob."

Despite Hidden Hills' elite reputation today ("Please don't describe us as 500 millionaires behind guarded gates," pleads Hidden Hills Mayor Brian Herdeg), it was anything but a glamorous place to live back in the '50s and '60s. The houses sat out in barren, sunbaked fields. The tenuous local water supply had a tendency to run dry in the summer and clog up coffee filters the rest of the time. When a heavy winter storm came along, residents of low-lying houses along Long Valley Road would wake up to find two feet of water in their living rooms.

The lawyers, doctors, business and entertainment people who now live in Hidden Hills make it one of the wealthiest cities in the state, but in the early days residents had more modest occupations: police officers, firefighters, teachers and engineers. "Once they bought a house," says Alice Stelle, "the living room would stay unfurnished for a year."

"People had big families," Selby says. "Three, four, five or six children was the norm." Instead of Arabians and thoroughbreds, in those days people rode back-yard horses, and also kept chickens, geese, sheep and donkeys. In fact, the original developer gave away burros with each lot.

It was the busing programs of the mid-'70s that brought the initial changes to Hidden Hills. As Angelenos recoiled from what they saw as the horror of the public schools, they quickly discovered that by moving to Hidden Hills they could send their children to Las Virgenes School District schools, where test scores were among the highest in the state. An equally powerful magnet was the city's one-acre minimum lot size. When the mansionization craze finally struck, Hidden Hills lots could accommodate the new mega-houses in style.

Although many current residents rail at the trend, it was a boon for those Hidden Hills veterans whose kids were raised and gone. By the middle and late '80s, they could sell an 1,800- or 2,400-square-foot ranch house for $700,000 or $800,000 to someone who would tear it down and build in its place a 6,000-, 8,000- or 10,000-square-foot mansion, with gyms, saunas, billiard rooms, tennis courts, pool houses, spas, six-car garages, seven fireplaces and eight baths.

Even that would be OK. The problem is, say old-time residents, the newcomers want to change everything around them as well. People move in, claiming a deep admiration for Hidden Hills' informal lifestyle, animal population and starry night skies. After they've lived there a while, however, they want to, in resident Cheryl Morris' words, "sterilize the city," agitating for street lights and sidewalks and complaining that the horses leave road apples in the street.

"We have rooster wars," says Claudette Rice, horsemen association president. That's when a new arrival starts threatening a longtime resident because her roosters are keeping him awake. One man shot a neighbor's chicken with a pellet gun because it left droppings on his driveway just before the arrival of his party guests. On another occasion, says Rice, shaking her head in disbelief, a man sent his wife out to walk the bridle paths at 3 a.m. to catch a rooster.

Some of these community meetings are a riot, says Rice. Many of the newer residents are successful, assertive people. At work, they are used to being the boss. They'll be sitting at home watching City Council meetings on cable, and if they see something they don't like, they'll hop in the car. Five minutes later, they're pounding the table at City Hall.

"At community meetings, all you hear is the L word," says Morris, by which she means litigation. People sue at the drop of a hat: "What do you mean I can't put up an eight-foot retaining wall? Wait till you hear from my lawyer."

The community makes no bones about not wanting outsiders roaming the streets. One plan under consideration would move City Hall outside the gates, so outsiders doing business there will no longer need to enter the town. Two years ago, residents threw out three City Council members for proposing a low-income senior-citizen housing project. Then they disbanded the redevelopment agency, canceled a deal with the developer and fired the city attorney. When the developer filed suit in an effort to force the city to proceed, Hidden Hills settled out of court for $1 million (draining the city's reserves) rather than put in the housing.

Although legally required to provide low-income housing, Hidden Hills has no plans to build any, and probably never will, says Reznik. "During the City Council debates, residents would get up and say: 'Come on. Palos Verdes and Rolling Hills doesn't provide any low-cost housing, and nobody goes after them. They aren't going to come after us. We have a Republican administration.' "

But it wasn't just civic activists against the project -- most people thought a low-income project wouldn't work in a city like Hidden Hills. "They were going to build low-income housing at the foot of a pet cemetery, and on a good day you can smell Rover," says Gabriel, the theater producer. "There's no way they can even get to markets without crossing the freeway."

And what if the housing brings young children into the city? asks horseman president Rice. "I used to work at Round Meadow School. Every once in a while we would get kids living in a tumbledown house along the freeway, and they would come to school and really suffer. The majority of the people who live in here are in the upper-upper income bracket. You have kids go to school and they have their designer this and their designer that. It is cruel to put poor children in a situation like that."

Whatever else happens in Hidden Hills, it is unlikely to ever return to the casual, down-home early days. Until several years ago, the city's annual newcomer-welcoming party would be a potluck. The first letter of your last name determined what dish you brought. Now, says Morris, it's a catered, tented affair with balloons and flowers, an open bar, fresh fruit and seafood, and the residents show up looking like urban cowboys. "Dior cowboys," laughs Morris. "And heaven forbid that their boots should ever touch a road apple."

Not that they are likely to. The horse population has declined 30% over the last 15 years. In the expensive new tracts, says Morris, people just don't ride. "They're indoor people. You don't see a living soul except for the gardeners."

They seem to have different priorities in general. "It used to be a family community," says former resident Gibson. "Now the major influence is money and prestige." In the two new mansion tracts on either side of town (some old-time residents call them "Disneyland East" and "Disneyland West"), some houses have 2,000-square-foot master bedrooms and sell for as much as $5 million.

What kind of people live in such environments?

One developer thought he knew. He spelled it out in a real estate ad: "Hidden Hills: Home of the Rich, the Famous, and the Unlisted."

Some residents were furious at such crassness, horrified at being thought of as that kind of people, but Diane Selby saw it coming 15 years ago. It was naive, she says, to think you could build an inexpensive, rural, animal- and family-oriented community so close to Los Angeles and have it stay that way forever.

"Hidden Hills," she says, "was doomed from the start."
Hidden Hills Facts

* Population in 1990 census: 1,729

* Horse population in 1990: 484

* Area: 1.9 square miles

* Crime rate per 100,000 population: 1,056, contrasted with 5,624 for city of Los Angeles.

* Racial composition: white: 95%; Asian: 3%; black: 0.5%.

* Percentile rank on state tests of third-graders at Round Meadow Elementary School: Reading: 86; writing: 83; math: 85.

* Least expensive house on market: $600,000 for an 1,800-square-foot possible tear-down near city gate next to Ventura Freeway.

* Most expensive house: $4,995,000 for a 15,000-square-foot classical Georgian Colonial mansion with fluted oak-and-marble columns, mahogany recessed furniture-quality paneling, marble-slab flooring, tennis court, steam shower, sauna, sunken therapy whirlpool spa, two full-service wet bars, barbecue, gazebo, six-car garage, seven bedrooms and eight fireplaces.

GRAPHIC: Photo, Claudette Rice, left, and Cheryl Morris at Rice's Hidden Hills home. Residents of new tracts, says Morris, tend to be "indoor people." ; Photo, Real estate agents confer in Hidden Hills mansion that is for sale for $5 million. Some homes boast gyms, spas and multiple fireplaces. ; Photo, COLOR, (A1) Claudette Rice feeds horse. RICHARD DERK / Los Angeles Times; Photo, Then: 1950 billboard advertises land prices in Hidden Hills, when town had more rural flavor. Acreage for riding was a major draw. ; Photo, And now: Luxury development in progress. Prices often reach seven figures for mansions of up to 15,000 square feet.


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