YOU ARE HERE: IVPress HomeCollections

A Reader Writes by Brian McNeece: The LA good life can't match Valley options

June 24, 2002

My wife, Angie, and I sit in a gray metallic haze on the Ventura Freeway on a Saturday afternoon. To the front and rear lie endless rows and columns of slow-moving cars. Reflecting off windows, bumpers, mirrors, the sun blinds us a thousand times over. And we can't move.

Finally we reach our destination. We lurch off Topanga highway onto a dirt road that serpentines steeply just 100 yards to the home of friends Tom and Cathy. They live in a one-bedroom, one-bath shack on a shady hillside that they share with eight other homeowners.

We take a short hike up their private road through stands of oak, pine and eucalyptus to enter Topanga State Park. The hillsides are covered with chaparral vegetation similar to what we have in our nearby mountains: scrub oaks, greasewood, California lilac, skin-searing poison oak, yucca with its knifelike leaves and spires of white blossoms.


In a few minutes we're out of sight of any houses. Crossing into gullies, we pass through glens of ferns, vines and arbors enclosing our path. A couple of mule deer calmly browse in the brush just off the trail.

As we crest the hill, we're greeted by a breeze that cools us with moisture from the sea. On one side sits the vast Pacific Ocean and on the other the vast, throbbing ocean of humanity called Los Angeles.

Many of the houses in Topanga Canyon were built in the 1940s as weekend retreats. They consist of redwood siding nailed together on stringers, tilted up on piers, and nailed together at the corners. The roof holds the house together. Our friends just added a small triangle of space to their bedroom so they could walk around the bed and not have to climb over it. They poured a slab to accommodate a real kitchen. Naturally, they didn't bother to pull a permit, for doing so would invite the probing eyes of county building inspectors, given that nothing is to present-day code. Alas, someone spilled the beans, and the inspector arrived with his paperwork.

My friends may have to tear out the work they have done. Rules are rules. The two very strict rules for the rustic Topanga Canyon are (1) don't cut down any oak trees, and (2) don't increase the footprint of your house. Since Americans are naturally resourceful people, the Topanga Canyon's sly homeowners have figured out that you can get around rule (1) by moving oak trees instead of cutting them down, and rule (2) by cantilevering new construction off the old. This means that the new living space can't touch the ground. The footprint of the house stays the same, but parts of the house stick out on long beams, engineered like Frank Lloyd Wright's "Falling Waters" house to appear to defy gravity.

This sort of adjustment is expensive, as one can imagine. Nancy told the story of a developer who spent $190,000 to move two oak trees. Such is the absurdity when environmental regulations meet deep pockets.

For the privilege of living this very basic life (their house runs to a whopping 700 square feet), my friends paid $480,000.

Of course, there is the other home on the property — the "main" house. It's a veritable mansion at about 900 square feet. The rent is $1,800 a month, which helps a lot toward the $3,800 monthly payment on their little corner of paradise.

Tom and Cathy are not wealthy. Cathy did stack up a nice nest egg from the heady days of the dot-com boom working as an Internet startup consultant. Now she's back to making a decent living. Tom installs high-end audio and video in expensive cars. (His latest job: Five TVs, two Playstations, and two DVDs in one SUV Denali; yours for only $17,000). With their giant housing bill, they have to budget their purchases to make ends meet.

Yet for them, it's worth the cost. Barbecuing in the mountain breeze, accompanied by the tail-wagging big dogs of their small community, serenaded by the crows, mocking birds and woodpeckers, one can easily forget that there's a megalopolis just over the hill. The surf breaks five miles away. The radio stations are the best in the world.

They get the L.A. Times and access to more cultural events than a body could even read about.

As we head into the red zone on our climatic dial, we need to count our blessings. Our houses run much less than the $300,000 median of our coastal neighbors, yet we have the same opportunities as Tom and Cathy. It's only an hour or two of lovely driving away.

Time to count our blessings and get in the car and head for the coast. Take a sweater. See you there.

Imperial Valley Press Online Articles