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November 16, 1990|ELENA BRUNET

The very roots of the city of La Habra spring from the foothills in this northwest corner. According to city historian Esther R. Cramer, one of the original sources of water for the whole valley area--La Mirada Creek--trickles behind the preschool on Hacienda Boulevard and runs downhill beside Creek Lane. Early inhabitants were the thousands of sheep grazing on Jose Sansinena's ranch in the valley.

Despite streets and boundaries delineated by cartographers and demographers, this section of the city inevitably has multiple loyalties and divisions: It is as much on the edge of Orange County as it is on the edge of Los Angeles County. It is at the foot of La Habra Heights (in the Puente Hills range) and shares Valley Home Boulevard with the city of Whittier. It also includes a relatively large unincorporated island that is part of neither.

Even the elementary school located on Macy and Russell streets in the far northern corner of the territory manifests the area's identity crisis: On the edge of the unincorporated area, it is part of La Habra, but its district offices are in Whittier. It is part of the Lowell Joint School District (one of the smallest in the county, with four elementary schools and one junior high school), which reports both to Orange and Los Angeles counties. Of the members on its Board of Trustees, three are residents of La Habra Heights, one lives in Whittier and the fifth resides in the unincorporated section of La Habra.

The surrounding areas share the wealth of history that exists in this part of La Habra.

Sansinena, La Habra's earliest rancher, named an existing street, Madelena Drive, after his daughter. The manor house was situated there just east of Hacienda Boulevard. It was not particularly large, but nearby was an immense barn with thousands and thousands of sheep, historian Cramer said.

La Habra followed the typical route of development for Orange County cities: sheep, citrus, walnuts, oil, real estate. When the East Whittier Land and Water Co. began piping sufficient water for farming to the area in 1903, the land produced successful crops of citrus. Just east of what is today Walnut Street was the ranch of Edwin G. Hart, who began the first commercial avocado grove in Orange County. The original "Haas" avocado tree is still growing in La Habra Heights, according to Cramer.

Today, the area's central and easternmost parts are hilly, and the western parts are relatively flat. Handsome homes fronted by well-tended gardens reflect the area's comfortable wealth throughout. Some apartment buildings exist as well, on Walnut and Macy streets just north of Whittier Boulevard.

Only an intentional lack of major thoroughfares has maintained the area's relative isolation. Fifteen years ago, the city of La Habra hoped to attract developers by adding two freeways. But the freeway plans fell through, and the city remains a small bedroom community content with its quiet existence. The circuitous cul-de-sacs keep cars within the immediate area, try as they might to find the street that will lead them out.

Only the unincorporated section still defies the imposed designations and loyalties to broader surroundings. "They're uninterested in becoming a part of the city," Deputy City Manager Robert Burns said of residents there. "It's a close-knit group up there, a county island," he said. "You'll find pockets (like this) throughout the county."

And they have fought incorporation. In the mid-1970s, the city took action to incorporate the area. But when residents responded by taking it up with the state Legislature, the city decided it wasn't worth the effort, said Carlos Jaramillo, a city planner who handles the annexed areas of La Habra. At the time, he said, "there was a tax advantage" to remaining unincorporated, a difference "between what was assessed by the city and by the county." But with Proposition 13, the difference between the two is not as marked, Jaramillo said. Even so, the city is not making any further overtures. "We'll let them contact the city" if they'd like to join ranks, he said.

As Burns put it, "Their attitude (is) 'I'm already getting those services. Why should I be part of the city?' "

But the city and the county do have mutual-aid protection in case of such emergencies as fires.

"Crime is another thing," Burns said. By the time you hear about the crime, he said, it has already happened or it is under way. "I would believe our police would go in" in the event of a crime being reported, he said--after contacting the Sheriff's Department, of course.

Since the residents of the unincorporated island are in the county area, they fall within the sheriff's province, Burns said.

Attempts to hold a meeting of their Neighborhood Watch last week proved impossible to coordinate: The meeting required attendance by a representative from the crime prevention unit of the sheriff's office and a representative from the La Habra Police Department as well as the neighborhood organizers, and there wasn't a time at which everyone was available.

This unincorporated island isn't foremost on the minds of northwest community residents, however. It is a neighborhood that shares the foothills and the wealth.

Population Total: (1990 est.) 4,237 1980-90 change: +3.0% Median Age: 36.0

Racial/ethnic mix: White (non-Latino): 83% Latino: 12% Black: Less than 1% Other: 5%

By sex and age: MALES Median age: 34.2 years FEMALES Median age: 37.5 years

Income Per capita: $23,316 Median household: $62,859 Average household: $65,622

Income Distribution: Less than $25,000: 18% $25,000-49,999: 33% $50,000-74,999: 31% $75,000-$99,999: 10% $100,000 and more: 8%

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