The neat houses and fastidiously kept yards at Peacock Hills in Oceanside disguise a bitterness between young and old residents that is echoing through the courts and the state Legislature.
A long and emotional legal dispute over whether younger residents have the right to live in what's argued to be a 920-unit duplex project strictly for senior citizens has descended to personal attacks and reported vandalism.
For 34-year-old Karen West, a key figure in the conflict, there are angry phone calls and unsigned letters telling her and husband Richard, 32, to take their 2-year-old son, Jeremy, and get out.
One anonymous note, signed by a person who identified herself only as an 84-year-old grandmother, reads: "We get enough annoyance when we go out to grocery stores (and) when we go out to eat and restaurants have squalling, fighting kids to disturb our meals when we look for a quiet interlude."
"So take your kids where there are other brats and leave us alone," it concludes.
West put down the note and said,, "They have such contempt for young people and children, it's incredible."
But the handful of Peacock Hills residents under the age of 55 aren't the only ones who have been bruised by years of controversy and accusations over who may live in the 1970s-era project near Oceanside and College boulevards.
Older residents like Jean Doktor say they've been hurt, too, by harsh media coverage, young outsiders who disdainfully race their cars through the neighborhoods with blaring boom boxes, and vandalism to signs and mail boxes.
"It seems we are being turned into ogres," Doktor said. "It's a shame this quiet community has been rocked like this."
In cases being watched throughout the state, the Peacock Hills Architectural Committee is suing the Wests and another young couple, Kevin and Stephanie Bell, who are in their late 20s, to force them from their purchased duplex units because they don't meet the project's age requirement.
Last October, a Vista Superior Court judge enforced the age restriction and ordered the Wests to move from Peacock Hills, a ruling that is now under appeal. A trial in the Bell case is scheduled to begin in July.
Meanwhile, special legislation to keep the Wests and the Bells in Peacock Hills goes before the state Senate's Housing and Urban Affairs Committee on Tuesday. It has already passed the Assembly on a 74-0 vote.
Although the legislation won't be the definitive word on the issue of age restrictions, the West's case is believed to be the first of its kind to reach the appellate court. So an appellate decision would influence similar cases in the lower courts.
"We're the guinea pig case," West said.
That's not what the Wests say they had in mind back in 1986 when the couple were trying to find an affordable house to buy with their modest $31,000 annual income. They found Peacock Hills, where each half of the duplexes is a tidy 900-square-foot home and a patio. Their unit cost $74,000.
The Wests knew there had been past legal troubles at Peacock Hills, but when they bought their home, they were armed with a fresh legal decision favoring another young couple, Michael and Marion Rhines, who lived in the project.
That decision held that the 55-year age restriction was invalid because the plaintiff, the Peacock Hills Architectural Committee, was a business-like entity subject to the state's Unruh Civil Rights Act that bans discriminatory business practices.
Further, the ruling said the part of the project where the Rhines lived, called Phase 2, wasn't even designed for seniors or the elderly. The committee didn't appeal its defeat in the Rhines case.
So the Wests moved into their unit in Phase 4, confident the Rhines decision protected them and applied to all phases of Peacock Hills. Ten months later, in July 1987, they were sued for violating the age restriction.
Although technical legal questions are involved, there is an emotional side to the conflict.
Doktor holds a typical view among the seniors who want Peacock Hills exclusively for themselves.
She and her husband, John, are retired and bought their unit in 1979, longing to live out their years in tranquility and among friends and neighbors their own age.
"I have kids and grand-kids and I love them," Doktor said. "But I feel when I get to this age, I do want a little serenity." The Doktors had moved from other residences "where there's no care and respect and the kids just run around."
But here, at neat and well-maintained Peacock Hills, "it's Shangri-La for us who had been searching for an ideal place."
She's especially comforted by the fact that seniors "seem to help one another with emergencies. Whether that would happen with the younger people, I don't know."
Although Doktor said she's sorry about the hostile calls and letters to the Wests, she believes the couple took a clear risk by bucking the age restriction in seeking the affordable housing of Peacock Hills.