Tract homes. In Simi Valley, as in many suburbs throughout Southern California and the nation, the uniform, pre-planned communities are common.
Miles of matching homes with stucco walls and red tile roofs line tidy, winding streets. One of the first in Simi Valley was Bridle Path. Built in stages beginning during the city's housing boom in the mid-1970s, it rises above the city at its easternmost edge, backing onto the Santa Monica Mountains.
At first, longtime residents cast a skeptical eye at the 630-home tract, dismissing it as just another bland development covering open hills, pushing out the citrus farmers and cattle ranchers who had dominated the dusty valley.
But over the years the neighborhood has taken on a distinct character, and many residents now cherish it for the features that link it to the days before suburbia arrived.
"When I'm down in the valley, there's all the noise and hustle of the city," said resident Kathy Herbert. "I come up here and it's almost like going back in time."
As the valley floor has been covered with homes and shopping, Bridle Path is one of the few neighborhoods where residents are allowed to keep horses.
It is the only Simi Valley community with its own private park--Mountain Park--a hilly, 1,700-acre refuge crossed with horse trails and home to bobcats, mountain lions, skunks, opossums, deer, rabbits and coyotes.
The park is accessible exclusively to these beasts, and to residents bearing plastic card keys issued by the Bridle Path Homeowners Assn. A $21 monthly fee paid by all homeowners covers the cost of maintaining the park and several horse arenas in the neighborhood.
The neighborhood holds another distinction: It is one of the few in Simi Valley perched above the valley floor--a hillside protection ordinance enacted after the tract was approved now prohibits most construction on the slopes.
"There is nothing else like it in the county," said Christine Bickly, a real estate agent who has lived in Bridle Path for six years. "There is so much value to the land and the park."
A tolerant homeowners association has allowed residents to alter their houses. Unlike other large Simi Valley tracts, particularly in Wood Ranch and Indian Hills, each property has taken on the personality of its owners.
This creativity manifests itself in horse-shaped mailboxes, turquoise-and-pink paint jobs and elaborate landscaping. Many residents have built sheds and barns to keep pigs, goats, chickens and other barnyard animals on plots that can be no smaller than half an acre.
And one resident even has a llama--the one beast that has provoked more controversy than the community has seen in its two decades.
It is not uncommon in the early morning hours to see ducks waddling across Nonchalant Drive, Mellow Road or other streets with soothing names.
A few common elements tie the community together visually. The tract, built in four phases, comes in two architectural styles: single-story ranch and two-story barn. Split-rail fences run throughout Bridle Path, and sand-covered trails replace sidewalks. Lawns must be green and well trimmed and trees must be cut back to allow enough room for horse and rider to pass easily underneath.
A monthly newsletter issued by the homeowners association keeps residents up to date on horse competitions in the neighborhood and gently scolds homeowners whose lawns are overgrown or whose fences need mending.
A recent issue warned residents not to plant oleander bushes, which are toxic and could harm the horses. It also admonished residents to "NOT LET YOUR HORSE MANURE ACCUMULATE!"
Poison plant and horse manure problems aside, Bridle Path residents have lived in relative comfort and harmony for nearly two decades.
Councilman Paul Miller bought a house on Azure Drive several years ago, lured by the large lots and panoramic views of the city.
"You are in the city, but it's so quiet and peaceful, it's like living in the country," Miller said. "The things I really value are the open space and the friendly atmosphere."
But in recent months the neighborhood's tranquillity has been threatened by a doe-eyed llama called Fantasia.
Eight years ago a resident of a neighboring tract got permission from the city to keep llamas on his property, which, like Bridle Path, is zoned for horses.
The llamas lived happily and undisturbed until last February, when Bridle Path resident Mitch Pelter bought a llama for his wife Charmaine as a Christmas-birthday present.
"My husband wanted to buy me something and I had thought about getting a carriage and teaching my horses to pull it," Charmaine Pelter recalled. "But then I saw this little baby llama. It looked like it was wearing a little tuxedo. It was just adorable."
A week later, the Pelters brought their llama home, and the trouble began.