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Happy Trails

Orange Park Acres, a horse-driven community amid the bustle of Orange County, wraps its residents in a warm security blanket.

November 08, 1998|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Unless you're familiar with the area, traveling through Orange Park Acres at night is challenging. Without street lights to guide your way and curbs and sidewalks to define boundaries, visitors need to travel cautiously.

Though many communities would raise a fuss and demand funding for "improvements" like sidewalks and street lights, Orange Park Acres residents like things the way they are. In this equestrian community nestled in the foothills of east Orange, people cling to the area's rural, relaxed way of life.

"Residents are really passionate about living here and maintaining things the way they are," said Kirk Maldonado, an attorney in the Costa Mesa office of Riordan & McKinzie. He lives in Orange Park Acres with his wife, Leslie, and their 2-year-old twins, Rob and Adriana.

Since moving into the area six years ago, the Maldonados have been surprised at the high level of community interest.

"I belonged to the homeowners board in Newport Beach, and we fought just to get people to attend the meetings," he said. "Here they have a fund-raiser and 200 people show up."

Orange Park Acres--bounded by Santiago Creek on the north, Cannon Street and Cliffway Drive on the west, Canyon View Avenue on the south, and Irvine Regional Park and Irvine Co. land on the east--has about 1,200 homes, most of them on an acre or more. At least 20 miles of horse trails wind through the community, leading to three county regional parks and eventually to national forests.

"People who move to this rural residential area are the type that want to get away from a high-density lifestyle and spread their wings," said Bob Bell, who runs Bob Bell Real Estate in Orange. He lived in Orange Park Acres for 25 years while raising a family and now lives in nearby Villa Park.

"Many people want to raise children in the Orange Park area because it's safe, and it keeps kids busy," Bell said. "A lot of the children have animals, which teaches them what life is all about. My oldest son was involved in the 4-H Club, which is still active today. He raised rabbits and pigs and now he builds shopping centers."

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The Maldonados had Orange Park Acres in mind as a good place to raise children when they bought their five-bedroom, three-bath 3,300-square-foot-home in August, 1992, for $550,000.

"We couldn't resist the opportunity for the kids to have pets and learn responsibility in the wide open space," said Maldonado, who owns four horses. "The area has a lack of emphasis on material things. People here aren't pretentious."

Unless you look closely, you can't tell that there are million-dollar homes next to modest houses dating to the 1940s, although most residences sit on at least one acre.

At the lower end of the Orange Park Acres housing market, Bell said, there are about 50 three-bedroom, two-bath homes on smaller lots that sell in the mid-$200,000 range.

A more typical home in the area is 2,000 to 3,500 square feet with four bedrooms and two to three baths for $450,000 for an older home.

Newer homes in the 5,000-square-foot range have five to seven bedrooms, four to five baths, horse facilities or tennis courts, stables and guest houses and run $600,000 to $1 million, Bell said.

At the high end are a handful of mansions in the $2-million to $3-million range with 8,000 to 10,000 square feet, guest houses, seven to eight bedrooms, six to seven bathrooms and stables and tennis courts.

"Considering the diversity in homes, the community is amazingly compatible," said Anita Bennyhoff, who has lived in the area since 1967, when she bought her three-bedroom, three-bath, 3,000-square-foot house for $45,000.

She attributes the community's cohesion to the slow growth in the area.

"Each and every home is built on an individual basis," said Bennyhoff, who founded, publishes and edits the 29-year-old Foothill Sentry, which began as a community newsletter and is now a monthly newspaper with a circulation of 27,500 that covers Orange Park Acres and surrounding areas.

"I think people move here because they're tired of constant change and being uptight," she said. "They like the slow, live-and-let-live pace of life we have here."

Besides Orange Park Acres' tranquil atmosphere, many are attracted to the woodsy setting that's home to one of the last active equestrian communities left in Southern California.

Builders are required to install trails around the developments. Although the community's trails are on city property, they are maintained by funds raised by the Orange Park Acres Homeowners Assn., a volunteer organization.

"We are really dedicated to the trails, because they are what keeps this community strongly equestrian," Bennyhoff said.

Each summer, residents show off their many horses in the community's annual Fourth of July parade. The two-mile event usually features about 100 horses, 150 bicyclers, cars, floats and crowds of people of foot.

Although an equestrian spirit unifies the community, horses aren't the only animals you'll see on a visit to Orange Park Acres.

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