North Tustin fights for independence, identity and maybe a new zip code
Homes and a park in North Tustin.
June 1, 2015 at 4:59 p.m.
It’s tough to find a $2 million estate in Orange County where you’re allowed to have chickens.
Or a blue driveway. Or a lake in the front yard.
Those are some of the freedoms afforded to residents of North Tustin, tucked away in the foothills and hills between Orange and Tustin.
It’s the largest unincorporated island in the county, with some 25,000 residents living away from tract homes and Mello-Roos taxes. It’s also one of the county’s wealthiest communities, trailing only places such as Newport Beach, Villa Park and Coto de Caza.
Mary Pickford, Karen Carpenter and Chuck Norris once lived here. Today, top executives from companies like Taco Bell, heirs to thrones such as Harley-Davidson and those with names such as Segerstrom call North Tustin home, lured by the large lots, expansive views and the freedom of being in an unincorporated community.
“It’s like living in the country in the middle of Orange County,” seven-year resident Jeff Martin said.
Though it’s united by its distinct character, North Tustin remains divided in many ways. The community is served by two school districts and three water districts. It’s split between two ZIP codes and falls in the sphere of influence of two cities. And it comprises diverse neighborhoods, such as Cowan Heights, Lemon Heights and Red Hill.
Leaders want to bridge some of those gaps by giving North Tustin its own ZIP code – a move likely to raise property values and lower insurance costs. One day, they hope to maybe give the community a name all its own.
“There is a strong identity of people in North Tustin,” said Rick Nelson, president of the Foothills Communities Association, a volunteer homeowners association serving the area. “It’s just that there’s no visibility.”
Their plan just might work.
While the county as a policy wants to eliminate unincorporated islands elsewhere, North Tustin retains its independence. And the community has found a political voice, wielding influence despite its low profile and splintered identity.
FOOTHILL FENDS OFF SUBURBIA
Some 60 years ago, the area now known as North Tustin was filled with citrus groves, peacocks roaming free and a few large homes randomly springing up on hillsides.
Interest in the area picked up in the 1960s, with more homes being built and a commercial developer targeting the hill near Newport Avenue and Hyde Park Drive for a shopping center.
Looking to preserve the area’s rural landscape, residents banded together in 1964 to form the Foothill Home Owners Association, which later became the Foothill Communities Association. Though the county Planning Commission recommended approval, the association fought hard, and the Board of Supervisors denied the shopping center.
The association has been fighting ever since. It fended off a planned motel, golf course, hospital and gravel excavation project. It joined efforts to reduce noise from planes approaching John Wayne Airport. It took on the Catholic church and – with help from Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who lives just north of North Tustin – appears to have won, fending off a planned senior complex. And it recently launched a campaign to oust one of the area’s water providers.
These efforts are helped, Martin acknowledged, by residents who have the money to protect the way of life they’ve come to love.
Now, with Nelson at the helm, the association is also looking for ways to unite around positive causes.
Using donations from residents and area businesses, the association launched an annual picnic and a beautification committee. It created the North Tustin Political Action Committee, supporting candidates for the Board of Supervisors, Tustin City Council and Tustin Unified School District. And it formed a Fire Safe Council, which is looking to host its first movie night soon with fire engines for kids to climb on and a screening of the ever-popular “Frozen.”
Next up? Requesting North Tustin’s own ZIP code.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE A ZIP CODE MAKES
The sole signage denoting North Tustin is along Seventeenth Street. Nelson – a 44-year resident – pushed to get the sign, and the county did the work.
But try looking up an address in North Tustin, and your navigation system will likely tell you it’s in Santa Ana. That’s because most of North Tustin is assigned a ZIP code tied to Santa Ana. So even though residents got permission from the U.S. Postal Service to use North Tustin on their mail, an explanation is still required each time residents give out their address.
When a woman Nelson knows was ready to buy a home, she found a couple of properties online that interested her. She took the addresses to her Realtor, who wasn’t familiar with North Tustin. When the agent pulled up addresses that read Santa Ana, Nelson said she steered the woman away from those homes, insisting she didn’t want to buy there because of the city’s density and crime rates.
A similar scenario plays out every single time Corine Peterson, a longtime North Tustin resident and broker with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices California Properties, holds an open house.
“Not having our own ZIP code creates confusion,” Peterson said. “And it harms both buyers and sellers.”
The difference in density and crime rates has a negative effect on property values and insurance rates, leaders said. However, they insist the push for a new ZIP code is not about implying North Tustin is better than Santa Ana. But the areas are different, and they say blurring the two does a disservice to both.
If people are looking to buy in an area with a vibrant art and music scene, restaurants and a trendy downtown, Peterson said, they want Santa Ana. If they’re looking for quiet neighborhoods with homes set back from narrow streets, they want North Tustin.
The ZIP code confusion might also have more serious consequences.
When 23-year resident Kelly Johnston had someone follow her home from the grocery store, she called 911. The operator couldn’t find her Cowan Heights home through her routing system, Johnston said, and no one ever responded to check on her.
At an association meeting, Nelson said an Orange County sheriff’s deputy advised North Tustin residents not to call 911 if they have an emergency, with those calls often routed to the Santa Ana Police Department. Instead, Nelson said, they were told to call the sheriff’s dispatch center.
ONLY GOATS KICKED OFF THE ISLAND
Since emerging from its 1994 bankruptcy, the county has had a goal to shrink unincorporated areas, shifting its focus from local to regional control. That triggered an effort to get islands either annexed into neighboring cities, as Sunset Beach joined Huntington Beach, or incorporated on their own.
North Tustin is one of 34 unincorporated islands in Orange County, and it’s the largest by far. Residents don’t want the community to get swallowed up by its neighboring cities, though, and the prospect of North Tustin ever becoming its own city are slim.
The population of North Tustin is larger than six Orange County cities, including Seal Beach. And it’s larger geographically than eight cities in the county, at more than twice the size of Stanton and four times the size of the smallest city of La Palma.
The problem is tax revenue. Most cities depend on sales tax revenue for a large portion of their operating budgets. With only a couple of small pockets of commercial development in the community, North Tustin doesn’t have the tax revenue base to support cityhood unless residents agree to tax themselves to help pay for services such as public safety, road maintenance and animal control.
Rossmoor – the last O.C. community that tried to incorporate in 2008 – is a glaring example of that struggle. With little retail in Rossmoor, the Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission required voters to voluntarily take on a 7 percent to 9 percent utility tax to ensure services wouldn’t decline. Some 72 percent of Rossmoor residents said no, and the community remains unincorporated today.
Though there are some who fall in every camp, Nelson said the prospect of remaining unincorporated is just fine by most North Tustin residents.
Many cities require residents to comply with architectural guidelines and get licenses for home businesses. But North Tustin let the previous owner of Martin’s home keep a 300-pound hog, the owners of a new mansion build their tennis court on a platform that stretches over the road and one mysterious owner surrounds his estate by a 12-foot-high brick wall.
Johnston said her community in Cowan Heights only has two rules. They were drafted in the 1950s on a Courier typewriter.
“We can’t subdivide our lot,” Johnston said, “and we’re allowed to have any animal except a goat.”
Why a goat? No one knows. But these are freedoms that would be tough to give up.
Contact the writer: 714-796-7963 or BStaggs@OCRegister.com
The Foothills Community Association was organized as the Foothill Home Owners Association in 1964 to protect the interests of the residents. The HOA converted to non-profit corporation in 1973
Foothill Communities Association, Inc. P.O.Box 261, Tustin, California 92781