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In Defense of Fences : Residents Debate Whether Gated Enclaves Fit With Old-Fashioned Neighborly Ideals


If you live down the hill from it, you might not see what is so friendly about Friendly Hills Estates. An iron gate keeps you out. More gates, walls and elaborate security systems surround each mansion. Security guards cruise the wide streets, keeping an eye out for strangers. If all that fails, some residents have nasty dogs ready to nip at unwelcome ankles.

But if you live on top of the hill in Whittier's most expensive neighborhood, your estate may have cost millions of dollars and be filled with expensive art and jewelry you want to safeguard. Your enjoyment of your marble Jacuzzi with a view all the way to the ocean is all the more sweet because you know nobody can intrude. You are king of the hill, and you want to keep it that way.

The growing popularity of gated communities like Friendly Hills Estates has sparked a debate among city officials and residents over just how well Whittier's six gated enclaves and their well-to-do residents fit in a town that has long prided itself on old-fashioned neighborliness.

Critics say the gates run counter to the unpretentious, egalitarian values embodied by the Quakers, who founded Whittier in 1887. They say that settlers of the city's oldest blocks of gingerbread homes have not seen fit to surround themselves with barriers. And they complain that the people who live in gated communities rarely bother to descend from their lofty perches to mix with the common folk at treasured local traditions, like summer concerts at the band shell. "I never see them," said John Smith, president of the Whittier Conservancy, a preservationist group. The conservancy recently distributed a position paper against gated communities, saying that more of them would destroy the city's sense of community.

Supporters of gated communities argue that times have changed. Gone are the days locals could pile their kids into the car, drive to the four blocks of Greenleaf Avenue that were once the entire downtown, and leave the front door unlocked.

They say that they have a right to protect themselves and their belongings from the hungry stares of the curious and from a growing crime rate. Whittier police reported a 5% jump in major crimes between 1989 and 1990. Residential burglaries increased from 410 to 463, while the number of murders rose from four to six, according to Whittier Police Capt. Arthur Christian.

As for the complaint that residents of gated communities are invisible citizens, "they throw benefits and eat in Whittier's fine restaurants," said John White, a real estate agent with Friendly Hills Realty.

The debate heated up earlier this year when the city reviewed proposals for two new gated communities.

A gated development on the edge of Turnbull Canyon called Beverly Hills won final approval from the City Council and is on its way to upsetting Friendly Hills' reign as the most expensive place in town to live. Developer Nick Olaerts said he and his partner Bill King already have received "hundreds of calls" from people interested in buying one of the project's 15 lots, which average an acre or so. The lots alone, now a tangle of chaparral and avocado trees, are priced from $400,000 to $750,000.

The developers of Arroyo Vista, however, dropped plans to wall off the proposed 54-home project in Worsham Canyon after neighbors complained that the gates were too exclusive. The City Council ultimately rejected the Worsham Canyon development, citing the project's density and inadequate flood control.

Gates add prestige to a development and increase the value of homes by as much as 15%, according to real estate agents. "When a developer can find a way to add gates to his community, he'll do it," said Ellen Poll, president of the Los Angeles Board of Realtors.

The expensive properties, in turn, mean significant revenue to the city. "I don't care if it's snobby or not, it increases the tax base," said Patrick Hart, a Whittier realtor.

The county and city split a 1 1/4% tax on property. A home assessed at $1 million pays $12,500 in annual property taxes, for example. There are nearly 60 such homes in Friendly Hills Estates and more under construction. City officials said they do not know how much tax money they receive specifically from Friendly Hills Estates because the county transfers all property taxes to the city in one lump sum.

In addition, the city's public school systems gain money from large and expensive homes through a fee tacked on to all new construction. The fee is $1.58 per square foot of construction. That means that a typical huge estate of 5,000 square feet would pay the schools $7,900.

In many ways the issue of gated communities has become a clash between old and new wealth. Whittier has become a hot market for such upscale developments in part because the newly rich like its serene, established feel--the very thing that the older rich complain is being destroyed by those ostentatious mansions behind the gates.

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