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Not driven? Here's a home where bison roam

March 07, 2004|H. May Spitz | Special to The Times

Reminiscent of a quiet European village, the city of Avalon on the eastern edge of Santa Catalina Island is about 21 miles, or roughly an hour by ferry, from the shores of the mainland. Incorporated in 1913, Avalon is a tightknit island community of about 3,200 permanent residents surrounded by untouched native scenery.


Evidence of human life on the island dates back 7,000 years. The Pimungans were among the first inhabitants on record. From the island they called "Pimu," they paddled out to greet Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542. Claimed by Spain, the island was named Santa Catalina Island in honor of Saint Catherine of Alexandria.

Deeded to the United States, the island was purchased by William Wrigley Jr. in 1919. The Wrigley family played a prominent role in developing Avalon, including bringing public utilities, a hotel and a casino dancehall that remains a landmark on the bay. The stunning view home the Wrigleys built is now an inn.

The family dedicated a large part of the island as a nature conservancy in 1972. With 76 square miles (about 86%) of the island part of a nonprofit ecological foundation, the Santa Catalina Conservancy was established. The conservancy permanently preserves the area in its natural ecological state.

Drawing card

With an economy based largely on tourism, island residents live in a resort setting with a small-town atmosphere. "When I was a kid, a five-minute walk with my dad took an hour, since everyone stopped to chat," said island regular Judith Zacher.

The only city on the island, Avalon has long been a magnet for artists and writers seeking peace and quiet. Author Zane Grey built a pueblo-style home overlooking Avalon Bay in the 1920s. His book, "The Vanishing American," was filmed on the island in 1924, with a cast of 14 buffalo (American bison). The bison today number around 300.

Insider's view

"The lifestyle? Kickback and casual," resident Herbie Sadd said. An island dweller for 30 years, Sadd said he "can't imagine living anywhere else."

Good news, bad news

There are no traffic lights in Avalon. When increasing traffic and pollution posed a problem in 1979, a city ordinance was enacted requiring two cars to leave the island before another vehicle would be allowed on. The waiting list is backlogged, with an 11-year wait to bring in a fresh vehicle. As a compromise, golf carts are allowed at a rate of one per dwelling.

Creating new housing for residents is a challenge. "We're landlocked," Chamber of Commerce President Wayne Griffin explained. "With most of the island a preserve, there's only so far we can grow."

Island residents are often priced out of rentals, since tourists are willing to pay a premium for seasonal housing. Trying to control the shortage, the city requires that a conditional-use permit be approved for any homeowner seeking seasonal rental income.

Hot spots

Avalon's bay is a popular rendezvous spot for yachtsmen and home to the Tuna Club, which was founded in 1898. Also on the bay is the Mediterranean-style Casino building, not a gambling casino (casino is Italian for gathering) but a famed ballroom, known for hosting big bands in the 1930s and '40s. The Casino building remains a popular site for special events. Other destinations include the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Garden, which features plants from all over the world, including those unique to the island, such as the Catalina ironwood tree.

Stock report

From the hills above the bay to the flats of the village, the 2000 U.S. census counts fewer than 2,000 places to live. "There's a shortage of housing, both for rent and sale," longtime resident and Realtor Peggy Meier said. Avalon listings include a historic four-bedroom Mediterranean villa for $1,295,000 with a sweeping view of the bay. A home overlooking the Tuna and Yacht clubs is listed at $1.6 million.

Purchases of rental property are popular, since summer rates are at premium levels. A duplex that rents for $5,000 weekly per unit in summer recently sold for $1,599,000 after being on the market for a day. Lots for development are available for condominiums and homes and range from $360,000 to $1.5 million.

Report card

Avalon schools -- kindergarten through high school -- enroll about 728 students. The 2003 Academic Performance Index for the combined schools was 667 out of a possible 1,000.

Historical values

Single-family detached resales for the 90704 ZIP Code.

Year...Median Price






Prices may be artificially low due to sales of properties on leased land.

Sources: DataQuick Information Systems, Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Wayne Griffin;,, Avalon Rotary Club; avalonrotary., history.html, Peggy Meier Real Estate;,

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