10 September 2009

Neighborhoods of Carbon Canyon, Part Six: Oak Tree Downs at Western Hills

It's hard to believe that it was eight months ago that the last of these features was posted here, that one on Summit Ranch. The next Carbon Canyon neighborhood to be developed was Oak Tree Downs, set back into the rolling hills on the north side of the Canyon a good distance away from Carbon Canyon Road. This seclusion, coupled with the natural setting and the exclusive, gated aspect, has proved to be very attractive to upscale buyers.

The first homes came along in 1983, when, in March, the Los Angeles Times reported that the plans for the initial structures were being prepared by Newport Beach architects. Little publicity appears to have come out during the rest of that year, but, in 1984, matters changed significantly and Oak Tree Downs was being heavily advertised.

Indeed, a spokesman for the developer said in September that "more and more southern California families are moving from their run-of-the-mill city residences to the wide open spaces of the country. One such place is the equestrian-oriented Oak Tree Downs community in scenic Carbon Canyon."

A couple of items leap out from that statement: first, the idea that Oak Tree Downs was in "the wide open spaces of the country." In fact, in 1984, that was still largely true, as I made a few trips through the Canyon a year or two after and hardly saw a car on the road from Brea to Chino Hills. Today, however, we are seeing the slow, but steady diminution of that "country" feel as commuters flood the two-lane Carbon Canyon Road and developers gobble up undeveloped land and make their plans to build more and more homes.

Meanwhile, the phrase "equestrian-oriented" is downright archaic in Oak Tree Downs. If that was the intention twenty-five years ago, it is hardly the case now, as very few of the homes in the community have horses today. Certainly, this mirrors the general trend in Chino Hills as a whole. While the city proudly promotes its equestrian heritage and rural (or "semi-rural") character, none of the recent housing projects or developments have been equestrian, despite the vinyl-fenced equestrian trails the line some of the city streets with its decomposed granite featuring nary a horseshoe print for the most part. Moreover, it's getting harder and harder to describe a city of 80,000 people as being rural or even semi-rural.

It is also significant to note that, in the mid-1980s, Oak Tree Downs consisted of lots that averaged a half-acre. This has changed considerably over the years as many lots are well over an acre. Likewise, square footage has changed dramatically. Early residences in the Downs were around 4,000 square feet and somewhat larger, whereas now it is not all uncommon to have homes of 6,000 square feet or more, with the largest, the former King "estate" at some 14,000 square feet. As a matter of fact, a house plan has just been approved at over 11,000 square feet. Given that our society's average square footage in single-family homes has about doubled since 1970, we shouldn't be too surprised at the consequent increase in Oak Tree Downs.

Another major change: in November 1984, a Times article noted that half-acre homesites in the Downs started at $77,000 and the developers were promoting the appeal to "value conscious" buyers, a term that seems laughable today when talking about the Downs. Even adjusting for inflation and the severe economic downturn of the last year, prices for undeveloped lots in the community have gone up more than dramatically in the last quarter-century. Then again, given that the barrier between Carbon Canyon and the surrounding suburban landscape has been gradually eroded over the years, Oak Tree Downs is a great value still when compared to similar areas of Orange County.

Like almost anywhere else, the subdivison sputtered in the real estate collapse of the late 80s/early 90s and didn't rebound until the market picked up again after the mid-90s. That's when a significant number of new, larger and more ornate residences sprung up throughout the Downs. In the meantime, Western Hills Estates, consisting of 35 smaller homes and lots adjacent to Western Hills Country Club, was developed by C/L Builders-Developers, Inc., which also happened to be the developers of "The Ranch Oaks," also known as "Summit Trails," now part of "Summit Ranch," which developed the lower or second section after 1983.

In the heavy winter rains of 2004-05, a dispute arose after Carbon Canyon Road was closed between Canon Lane and Canyon Hills Road due to a sinkhole. When homeowners in the Downs objected to drivers using their streets as a detour around the closure and resorted to verbal "protests" directed at the invaders and then the blocking of the Canyon Hills gate, the City of Chino Hills evidently trotted out a copy of the old approvals of the project, then under San Bernardino County auspices (Chino Hills cityhood being several years in the future), from the Eighties, which provided for use of Downs roads for emergency access in case of a Carbon Canyon Road closure. This uneasy state of affairs lasted for a couple of weeks until the highway was repaired and reopened.

In 2007, the two merged into one development, managed by Empire Management in Upland, that will someday have a guarded main entrance gate off Canon Lane, rather than the automatic gates there and at Canyon Hills Road that once serviced the Downs exclusively before the Estates was folded into that system. Although the completion of the guard station [see the photo, taken in July, above] has stalled, the new name of the community, Oak Tree Downs at Western Hills, seems to have taken effect. Indeed, .pdf files of HOA meeting minutes are available online and are an interesting window into the management of the only gated custom luxury home community in Carbon Canyon.

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