They're Heading for the Hills


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"I TAKE A LOT OF GRIEF ON THE AIR FOR LIVING SO FAR OUT in the sticks," says Jeff Elliott, of Q106's Jeff and Jer. His morning radio sidekick, Jerry St. James, tauntingly refers to Elliott's Alpine home as “Yuma Heights.”

But he who laughs last...

Newcomers to Alpine would just as soon everybody thought this mountain burg was too far out for comfort. Keep the secret, they say. In fact, Alpine—25 minutes east of downtown San Diego via freeways 94 or I-8 (in non-rush-hour traffic)—has much to recommend it. The charm of a rural community. Open skies clear of smog at 2,800 feet. Rolling terrain. Crisp country air. A perfect climate for asthmatics, says Paul Gonya, owner of Real Estate International (REI) and one of the major builders in this area.

Of course, Gonya wants new residents to move to his adopted town. Especially to his Alpine Ranch Estates, with upscale new homes ranging from $250,000 to $750,000. Nearby Rancho Palo Verde, the gated community with grander architecture where Elliott lives, is the Fairbanks Ranch of East County. But middle-income homeowners also can find peace and solitude in this foothill retreat where pine trees hold sway over palms and, on clear days (most days), the view extends to downtown San Diego and the Coronado Islands.

Executive recruiter Bob Watkins of R.J. Watkins & Company and his wife, Maggie, marketing director for the law firm of Luce Forward Hamilton & Scripps, moved to Alpine from a San Diego beach home three years ago. “When we tell people we live in Alpine, they think we're crazy,” Maggie says. “But it's just beautiful up here. By the time I hit the front door, I'm already relaxed. You can slow down on the ride home.”

Immersed in the rural flavor of this quaint town, it's easy to forget Alpine's proximity to big-town San Diego. The late-1800s town hall still stands, a reminder that this was once a stage stop for pioneers en route to San Diego. McGuffie's Alpine Sundries shop still serves tart lemon Cokes and frothy chocolate malts from an authentic, old-time soda fountain.

Boasting the lowest crime rate in the county, Alpine is attracting more and more young professionals who are moving their families to this “place where the children are not forced to grow up too quickly,” says elementary school principal Rick Miller. Five years here have made confirmed “Alpinos” out of Elliott and his wife, Nina, who have two preschool children.

Alpine's other great lure: the low cost of living. You can, quite simply, get a lot more home for your money in them thar hills. A 2,400-square-foot house on an acre in Alpine is in the $250,000 range. In Rancho Santa Fe, a comparable spread would command three times as much.

Following the Alpine trail blazed by his friend Elliott, Channel 10's Stephen Clark made the big move four years ago. After covering the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles, Clark says he knew he didn't want to raise his family in a city—any city. “Flaming bottles were flying past my head,” he recalls, “and at that point I decided, ‘That does it. I'm moving out of the city.'”

“THOSE WHO ONCE LEFT the cities for the suburbs are now leaving the suburbs for Alpine,” says Gonya, who quit Pacific Beach for the mountains 24 years ago. After a fire destroyed his first home in Alpine, Gonya spent three months living out of a motor home in his driveway. While supervising the construction of his new house, he began to formulate plans for REI and for developments such as Alpine Ranch Estates, a community of luxury homes on 1- to 5-acre lots. With his wife, Christina, and 9-year-old daughter, Chelsea, by his side, Gonya has made Alpine his permanent home and made designing country estates his career.

The Gonya home sits on 5 acres of boulder country at the base of the Viejas Mountains. Designed to emphasize the natural beauty of the terrain, each room affords a spectacular view of the backyard waterscape and tranquil duck pond, with soaring mountain ranges as backdrop. Faye Fentin, an REI interior designer, worked with Christina (and furnishings from Ethan Allen) to create the interior of this '90s-style country home.

Like the town of Alpine, the Gonya home is an eclectic blend of old and new. “My greatest challenge,” says Fentin, “was creating an environment that could combine Paul's antiques with Christina's more contemporary pieces.” Dark mahoganies and cherry wood contrast with modern window treatments designed to filter the brilliant Alpine sunshine. The house is open and bright.

Each room showcases keepsakes and antique treasures. Throughout the house, Spanish Lladro figurines are poised delicately atop antique armoires and dressers. A magnificent mahogany hall tree marks the entrance to the den, a maverick room decorated in a Southwestern theme. Fentin created this room, using muted earth tones, to showcase Paul's Navajo art collection and Christina's riding trophies.

An avid rider, Christina insisted on a plot of land to accommodate her horses. Off the patio, a walkway meanders down to a stable that houses the three family horses: Canadian Success, Doc's Sin Ah Mint and Chelsea's pony, Snickers. Behind the barn lies a turnout area for the horses to graze, while the front yard doubles as a riding arena.

Back inside the main house, intimate niches open into rooms with high ceilings and long-range views. “Walking from the bedroom to the living room, you never lose sight of the calming and peaceful waterscape,” says Christina, gazing out on the yard with mature oaks, a man-made pond and delicate country flowers. The waterscape was built into existing boulder formations in the backyard.

Christina loves the idea of country living with a big city so easily accessible. “If you go down to the main grocery store or out to a restaurant in Alpine,” she says with a laugh, “you'd better be prepared to meet your neighbors.”

But then, that is precisely the atmosphere most Alpine transplants came seeking. They want to know who bakes their bread, delivers their mail and teaches their children. The sense of community pride is overwhelming. Two years ago, Alpine Lumber faced bankruptcy; the town's residents rallied to buy shares and keep the store afloat.

Maintaining an atmosphere of timelessness in an era of fast change is challenging, but Alpine has not succumbed to the fervor of its own chic. Of course, property values have risen, leaving some lots expensive enough even for La Jollans to regard as fashionable. But the trendy foothill town remains a country retreat, even as the city encroaches.

And Alpiners—or Alpinos—aren't selfish. “We have the great big beautiful skies, and the mountains holding us in their arms,” says Bea La Force, who's lived here since 1945. “Why shouldn't we share it?”

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