Rural lifestyle fits Claremont neighborhood

A neighborhood can have a profound impact on one’s sense of place. At its best, it fosters a sense of community and encourages social interaction among neighbors. At its worst, it can devolve into exclusivity or segregation.

Just south of Radcliffe Drive in the center of Claremont lies a little neighborhood that offers another option: the quiet luxury of minding your own business. It doesn’t get much attention. And that’s the way the residents like it.                           

Abilene Way, with its row of multi-colored mailboxes and nine-foot-wide dirt road, is the gateway to 10 acres of Shangri la for more than a dozen residents who call it home.

“We’ve had guests to our house for events that say, ‘I’ve lived in Claremont since 1990 and I didn’t know this place was here,” says Abilene Way resident Douglas McGoon. “Most people think it belongs to the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. It’s truly a hidden gem in Claremont.”

Abilene Way, together with the Bernard Biological Field Station to the south, the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden to the west and the City of Pomona Water Company to the east, provides a habitat for native mammals, birds, reptiles and insects. Zoned a Rural Residential District, the existing houses are relatively low in stature compared to many in urbanized Claremont and are devoid of fences that would create an artificial division. The free-range arrangement underscores the residents’ desire to live collaboratively with the native environment.

There are no streetlights and no paved roads leading to the eight parcels that make up Abilene Way. Most property owners still rely on septic tanks and shared water. It’s a rural lifestyle smack dab in the middle of a city filled with modern conveniences.

A short history with little change

With their neighborhood’s zoning, Abilene Way residents became concerned over future development of the area, so in June 1989, they requested that the city consider setting development standards over and above the existing standards to regulate it. The request came before the Architectural and Planning Commissions in September that same year, who encouraged the property owners to work among themselves to reach a consensus and then present a proposal to the city for consideration.

Residents returned to the commission in 1991 but remained in disagreement over much of the proposal, which featured a few dozen areas residents hoped to address. The trouble was, they were at odds over almost every point. Some wanted to limit the footprints of houses, while others were more concerned with the height of structures. Some people wanted the option to fence in their property, while others pushed for a neighborhood without borders.

In response to the stalemate, the city manager and commission requested that city staff develop an alternate proposal and held a study session with property owners hoping to resolve their differences. At the conclusion of the study session, the commission felt all parties were close to a solution and recommended city staff develop an ordinance incorporating all concerns.

In July 1992, the city initiated proceedings to redistrict the RRD to a new zoning designation, the Abilene Residential District (ARD). The proposed development standards, which would be more restrictive under the zoning, were brought before the city council for their consideration.

With one councilmember referring to the residents’ request for new zoning as a “neighborhood feud,” the consensus was to direct city staff to finish the process pertaining to Abilene Way in “the near future,” and to “do it quickly.”

To date, Abilene Way remains a Rural Residential District. That’s just fine with its current residents, who work hard to live in harmony not only with the native landscape but with their neighbors as well.

Neighbors work together

Of the eight parcels that make up the Abilene Way neighborhood, seven have been developed thus far and not necessarily in a traditional way. Residents Douglas McGoon and Judy Ott-McGoon moved to their little piece of paradise after purchasing their rural 1.2-acre lot in 2001, then moved a Claremont Colleges schoolhouse to the site to serve as their residence.

The property had few amenities, only electricity, and the McGoons were prepared to use a water tank, septic tank and propane to meet their basic needs.

“This lot had been for sale and sold at least three times prior to us acquiring it, because there were no easements,” Mr. McGoon explains. “Nobody was going to want to move in without water. Three houses are currently on one meter and they share it, which is not really practical, and they weren’t going to do that for a fourth house. We beat them at their own game in that regard.”

The McGoons felt like they hit the lottery when Dr. Russell Martin, their former neighbor to the east, was granted an easement from the city. Given his home’s proximity to the Pomona water source, septic was not an option for Dr. Martin and he was granted an exemption to connect to the city’s sewer line. Three homeowners on Abilene Way, including the McGoons, bought into that permanent easement from a house on Radcliff that goes right through their side yard.

“Russ came over and said, ‘You want to share this easement?’ and gave me the price. I couldn’t reach for my wallet fast enough to write that check!” Mr. McGoon says with a smile. “We essentially became symbiotic in that we plowed through the hostilities of the neighborhood. People love their privacy back here, they love being exclusive and they love not being developed.”

“The neighbors didn’t like us,” says Ms. Ott-McGoon. “They wanted it to stay primitive, but I don’t think they knew that we wanted that too.”

With a mutual love for dirt and saving old things, the McGoons set out to create their own little slice of heaven in the City of Trees.

In 2001, the couple purchased the Mary B. Eyre Children’s School and relocated the structure to Abilene Way. The school—originally located on what is now the parking lot on the west side of Steele Hall at Scripps College—was split down the middle and transported to its new location and essentially reassembled.

“They had to cut it in half and this used to be two bedrooms,” Ms. Ott-MsGoon says of the couple’s upstairs retreat. “The architect said, ‘Just make it one big bedroom because it’s only the two of you and it didn’t have a bathroom so we added the bathroom.”

Complete with a basement that serves as a wine and root cellar, the McGoons have retained as much of the original architecture of the Mary B. Eyre structure as possible. The windows, doors and built-ins are as they were when constructed in 1922 and the couple took great care in paying homage to the little ones who roamed the halls—both past and present—with one unusual feature.

“We had four baby toilets that were original so we moved one in there and created this little alcove for the grandkids,” Ms. Ott-McGoon says of the miniature commode. “It’s just the cutest thing.”

A second structure was acquired and added to the Abilene property in 2005.

“That’s the two-car garage for the Green and Green on Eighth Street and College,” Mr. McGoon says. “The new owner wanted a three-car garage and wanted to demo it. Because the lot is large enough, we are allowed to have a second dwelling.”

The McGoons property is indeed large and they make good use of the land. Fruit trees, vegetables  and herbs are grown throughout and are hand-watered when needed. Mr. McGoon is building a greenhouse on the property, constructed of old doors and windows.

“We try to recycle everything we can—nothing goes to waste here,” says Ms. Ott-McGoon who owns Foothill Kitchens LLC, a commercial kitchen in Upland. “We use the green waste from the commercial kitchen to not only feed the chickens but in the compost bins here at the house.”

The couple has five compost bins on the property—including one with earthworms—that are used to enrich the soil.

Two large beehives, recovered from a utility box by Mr. McGoon himself, are located on the northwest portion of the property and provide honeycomb.

“I’ve lost three hives since I’ve been here,” Mr. McGoon explains as a swarm of bees swirls in the air. “When a beehive outgrows itself, they throw up another queen and those two queens go to battle. One or the other will have to leave and takes a bunch of bees with her. so they are looking for a new home. They must have just thrown that swarm off. I may get a call now, because people know I’m looking for swarms.”

Ms. Ott-McGoon adds with a giggle, “He loves those bees, but they sting him anyway!”

While maintaining a property of this size may be a challenge for many homeowners, the McGoons find joy in living a life they’ve created in a neighborhood of like-minded people.

“It’s tough, but working in the yard is a passion for me. It’s my pleasure,” Mr. McGoon says of caring for his 52,000-square-foot property.

“Doug puts in a lot time,” says Ms. Ott-McGoon, who concurs with her husband. “To do something like this it takes time, and we have two or three jobs to be able to do it. It’s always going to be primitive because you don’t have the sprinklers and the lawn, but that’s what we like. We have the best of both worlds…We’re close to entertainment and conveniences, but we’re on a dirt road. We have our own privacy. For us, it’s a real plus-plus.”

While Abilene Way is unlike most communities in Claremont, some things ring true as with any neighborhood. Homes change ownership and the next generation of residents breathes new life into the neighborhood.

The McGoons have acquired new neighbors in Astrid Shell and Anne Scutt-Putney, who purchased Dr. Martin’s home in 2011. After looking at houses in the Village, the couple knew Abilene Way was their home the minute they laid eyes on it.

“We knew it was ours before we even got out of the car,” says Ms. Scutt-Putney. “Then, as we were looking at the house, we met Doug and Judy. They are really the heart of the neighborhood and what makes it special to us. Doug does things as a good neighbor, we share a lot meals together and they’ve just become our extended family.”

Just goes to show, you don’t need good fences for good neighbors.

—Angela Bailey


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