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Where Elbow Room Is Close at Hand : San Marcos: This fast-growing San Diego County town is still a popular retirement spot with its open spaces and easy-going lifestyle.

May 05, 1991|DIRK SUTRO | Sutro is a free-lance writer based in Cardiff-by-the-Sea.

San Marcos has a split personality, but in this case, that's not all bad. Straddling California 78 in north San Diego County, a few miles west of Escondido, the city is a place where you can still live the quiet, country life.

"I haven't heard a siren since I've been here," marveled Marc McGuire, who last spring escaped from a condominium to a $280,000, 2 1/2-acre spread that includes a two-bedroom house in the rural Twin Oaks Valley area.

"There are no street lights, so you can see the stars really great at night, and you can hear coyotes. I have a feeling that I'm 50 to 100 miles out of the city here." McGuire is really only a mile or two from town.

But that is one side of this city set among low, khaki-colored foothills. The flip side is the fastest-growing city in San Diego County, with a population that has increased from 17,479 in 1980 to 39,000, and may approach 90,000 by the year 2000.

This emerging urban center has been chosen by the California State University system as the site of a new campus scheduled to open in the fall of 1992. As San Marcos comes of age, shopping malls, multiplex cinemas, tract housing and industrial parks are altering the laid-back lifestyle.

The 304-acre university campus on Twin Oaks Valley Road south of California 78 is part of San Marcos' "Heart of the City" plan for 1,700 acres centered at the intersection of Twin Oaks Valley Road and California 78.

"San Marcos doesn't have a true downtown, so we're planning to provide a focal point," said Paul Malone, deputy city manager. A 60-acre redevelopment project in the town center north of California 78 will include a city hall, library, community center and a station for the light-rail trolley expected to link coastal Oceanside with inland Escondido through the highway corridor by the mid-1990s.

The new public buildings could be finished as soon as late 1993, according to Malone.

The city also anticipates 500,000 square feet of mixed-use development in the town center, including offices, retail, hotels and residential. And there are proposals for new hospitals, an off-price retailing center and a business park, he said.

Developers are drawn by the relatively low cost of land in San Marcos. Home buyers are attracted by prices that seem a bargain compared to many other Southern California communities.

"The entry level is around $150,000 for your average three-bedroom house in some of the older neighborhoods, or in a few newer areas such as the Vineyard area, near the intersection of Vineyard and Mission roads," said Barbara King, owner of Twin Oaks Realty in San Marcos, who has lived in San Marcos for 30 years.

A step up would be the three-bedroom, two-bath homes in the Vallecitos area on the south end of town near Escondido, where homes are priced in the $175,000 to $250,000 range, according to Wally Akin, who runs a San Marcos real estate business with his wife, Darlene.

In 3-year-old Walnut Hills south of California 78, near the new university campus, homes are priced from $200,000 to $350,000, Akin said.

San Marcos also has a variety of condominiums. These start as low as $80,000 or $90,000. For $400,000 or $500,000, you can buy some of the area's finest estate homes on larger chunks of land in more rural settings, and there are premium properties, such as a nine-acre horse ranch in Twin Oaks Valley that listed recently for $1.5 million.

The city is especially appealing to families with children. The 9,123-student San Marcos Unified School District has a good reputation. Over the last 10 years, grades three to eight have shown more improvement in their California Assessment Program test scores than any other district in the county.

Students from San Marcos High and seven grammar schools consistently score in the 90th percentile and up in reading, writing and math, while junior high scores are slightly lower.

Fine weather is another draw. The city is 12 miles from the coast, far enough to avoid thick fog, but near enough that ocean breezes keep it several degrees cooler while cities swelter only a few miles east.

San Marcos is especially popular with retirees, many of whom end up in Lake San Marcos, a community-within-a-community of 4,000 people living around a man-made lake dotted with paddle boats and small fishing skiffs used to troll for bluegill, catfish, sunfish and bass.

"We moved here from Orinda (in Northern California) 18 months ago for four reasons," explained Marjorie Scott, who lives in Lake San Marcos with husband Otis, retired from a large oil company six years ago.

"One, it was too cold. Two, it was too far from golf. Three, we had too much property to take care of. And four, our kids live in Southern California.

"George says No. 4 is the main reason, but it's really No. 2."

The Scotts sold a three-bedroom, two-bath home on one-third acre in Orinda for $420,000 and bought a similar-sized home on a smaller lot next to the private golf course at Lake San Marcos for $325,000.

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