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Behind the scenery

Despite fires and the bark beetle, the housing market around Lake Arrowhead is booming. And residents have a new appreciation for caring for the forest.

June 20, 2004|Darrell Satzman | Special to The Times

If there's a silver lining to last year's devastating Southern California wildfires, it may be that denizens of picturesque Lake Arrowhead and surrounding communities in the San Bernardino Mountains are learning to see the forest for the trees.

A two-headed menace consisting of drought and a voracious bark beetle is wreaking havoc in the forest, killing millions of pines and firs and prompting warnings about the potential for even more catastrophic fires and a permanent shift in the area ecosystem.

But some curious things have happened on the way to environmental upheaval: Most locals have come to embrace the notion that fewer trees will improve the health of the forest and their safety, not to mention the views from their decks. And, the changing landscape notwithstanding, Lake Arrowhead's real estate market is as hot as it's been in years.

"Our sales are up more than 50% over last year, and last year was a wonderful year," said Bruce Block, managing broker at Coldwell Banker Skyridge Realty in Lake Arrowhead. "We're removing 600 trees a day, but it hasn't affected the beauty. This is something that should have started 70 years ago."

Last year's fires charred more than 90,000 acres in San Bernardino County, causing eight deaths and destroying hundreds of homes in Arrowhead-adjacent Cedar Glen. Thousands of houses in Lake Arrowhead -- from $125,000 cabins to $10-million lakefront mansions -- stood in the path of the flames, and many likely would have burned if the weather hadn't turned wet.

Not surprisingly, the fires threw a blanket over the local real estate market for two months. They also gave rise to fears of a slide in property values and a major hit to the regional economy.

But it hasn't turned out that way.

On a recent weekend, with the sun shining and SUVs double-parked in the overflow lot at Lake Arrowhead Village, potential home buyers were fanning out en masse through forest neighborhoods.

"Inventory is really low because things are selling so fast," Block said.

There are several reasons for the surge in activity.

The ups and downs of the stock market during the last few years have had an impact as more retirees and those with discretionary income ditch their mutual funds for investments they can enjoy.

The full-time population of Lake Arrowhead is just 10,000. But that swells to 40,000 on some weekends. The community and other year-round mountain resorts such as Big Bear Lake and Running Springs make up a large chunk of the market for Southern California vacation homes.

For homes below $400,000, mountain areas such as Lake Arrowhead, Crestline and Big Bear Lake offer first-time buyers and families considerably more for their money in terms of square footage and neighborhood amenities than markets "down the hill," where prices are rising even more rapidly.

Since 2000, the median price of a home in Lake Arrowhead has increased 34.5% to $283,000, according to DataQuick Information Systems. In San Bernardino County as a whole, median prices have jumped 43% to $219,000. (The high percentage of vacation homes in Lake Arrowhead and the steep price of houses around the lake skew prices higher.)

About $300,000 can buy a three-bedroom house with property in a nice neighborhood on the mountain, according to Realtor Matt Wegner of Coldwell Banker Rim of the World. In much of San Bernardino and nearly all of Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, the same home in an equivalent neighborhood would be worth $400,000 or more.

If families can work around the relative dearth of white-collar jobs on the mountain and don't mind traveling 45 minutes to get to a department store, getting more house for the money makes sense.

That's the dilemma faced by Greg and Darcy Whitney, who have listed their four-bedroom, 2 1/2-bathroom Lake Arrowhead house for $433,000. Only 5 years old, the handsome hillside home has a desirable flat yard and a view of the lake below.

But the Whitneys both work in Fontana, and they plan to move with their two small children to the Claremont area to be closer to their jobs. Greg Whitney said he's resigned to downsizing, perhaps substantially, from the about 2,500 square feet of living space the family now enjoys in order to buy in a good neighborhood.

"It's a completely different market," he said.

And although the Lake Arrowhead housing market is healthy, the loss of pines stings, especially for those who must foot the bill. Some of the trees are being cut and hauled away by Southern California Edison, which is requiring homeowners to remove dead trees around power lines.

Parts of the forest are going through a relatively rapid transformation as a result of bark beetle damage, according to Glenn Barley, a unit forester with the California Department of Forestry fire protection division. In some areas, those changes are fairly dramatic.

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