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Ramona: San Diego County's Fastest-Growing Small Town

Written by Courtney Ronan on Sunday, 26 December 1999 6:00 pm
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Just 35 miles northeast of San Diego lies a town you've probably never heard about but wish you had. It's Ramona, where your fellow neighbors are just as likely to have four legs as they are two, where average winter temperatures hit nearly 70 degrees and where the expression "It never rains in Southern California" doesn't apply. Situated in the Santa Maria Valley in San Diego County's unincorporated region, Ramona actually receives a generous amount of rainfall, although not enough to take away its nickname, "The Valley of the Sun."

This community of nearly 40,000 residents has maintained strong ties to its agrarian past, and today, you're still likely to find roadside produce stands containing some of the best crops around. It's hard to imagine a state more blessed with natural beauty than California, but as modernism has progressed, visitors are likely to find one of two extremes as they travel throughout the state -- bustling major metropolitan centers or pristine wilderness. Ramona is a town like no other. Comprised to a large degree by ranches, equestrian facilities and farmlands, it's hard to believe that Ramona has experienced a 40 percent increase in job growth during the second half of the 1990s. In recent years, planned communities have made a recent appearance amidst the rolling farmlands. Indeed, Ramona's one of the fastest-growing small towns in the country; and yet, the town remains unincorporated. It has one foot firmly planted in two worlds -- past and present.

What's in a name? The Santa Maria Valley, in which Ramona is located, is just the latest of a series of names this region has held. Its original residents were Native Americans, who decided to call this place the "Big Valley." Next to arrive were Mexican settlers, who changed the name to what has been translated to "Warm Valley of St. Mary." In 1975, the name changed once again to the Santa Maria Valley. Ramona's original name was Nuevo ("New"), a label Spanish settlers gave the town. At the time, Nuevo was a stopping point for miners headed to the town of Julian during the great Gold Rush. In 1884, a popular book gave the town the name that would stick -- Ramona. The best-selling "Ramona," by Helen Hunt Jackson, told the tale of a Native American woman and her experiences living in California among the region's earliest settlers.

If you want to see where California is headed, the modernism of San Diego will give you a good indication. But if you want to see a piece of the past and a window to the future, there's no need to travel beyond Ramona. The town's agricultural roots are diverse. During the 1930s, Ramona was known for its contributions come Thanksgiving and Christmas; turkeys were its specialty. Thirty years later, turkeys gave way to chickens and to more plant-based profits: avocados, a variety of citrus fruits, and, to the delight of apple pie-lovers, apples. As you're driving in Ramona, you may be surprised to spot horses sharing your road space. That's nothing unusual here because horses remain a primary source of transportation and recreation. This countrified lifestyle is recognized and celebrated yearly at such events as the Ramona Rodeo and the town's county fair.

Ramona has discovered another profit base throughout the years that celebrates its history: antiquing. Antique shops are plentiful within Ramona's town limits, and visitors wishing to purchase a piece of history have discovered little reason to head to San Diego after stopping here. While you're in town exploring those antique shops, you'll want to take note of two historic estates that have been converted into museums. The first, Amy Strong Castle, is situated at the base of Mount Woodson, a scenic point in Ramona (the home's builder, Dr. Marshall Woodson, is the mountain's namesake). Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this 12,000 square-foot mansion was finally completed in 1921 by then-owner Irene Amy Strong, a successful businesswoman.

The Guy B. Woodward Museum is an architectural marvel. Designed with the flavor of New Orleans, this French Provincial home was later converted into a museum by historian Guy Woodward. The house is a literal trip through time; it remains filled with period furnishings, a historic bunkhouse, jailhouse, post office, blacksmith facilty and doctor's office.

For a particularly unique taste of history, take a stroll down Hope Street. It's lined with an eclectic assortment of historic mailboxes, each one the product of a unique story.

If it's a more modern residence you're after, look no further than San Diego Country Estates, one of Ramona's most popular planned communities. Land is abundant in this still-unincorporated region of the county, so development continues. But San Diego Country Estates has been a resounding success and continues to serve as an example for present and aspiring developers. This 30-year-old planned community of more than 3,000 homes was one of Ramona's first. Among its amenities are an 18-hole championship golf course, two equestrian centers and several miles of horseback riding trails, a private park, hiking trails, a clubhouse, tennis courts, sand volleyball facilities, a youth center, two elementary schools and plenty of wide open space reserved especially for that purpose. Next door to San Diego Country Estates is the new Rancho San Vicente, which is still under construction. Upon its completion, Rancho San Vicente will be comprised of more than 240 homes and will have 38 acres of designated open lands.

Both inside and outside these planned communities, home prices in Ramona are relatively high by national standards but competitive by California standards. According to statistics provided by Fidelity National Title Insurance Company, the average square footage of homes sold in Ramona during June 1999 was 1,827 square feet. The average home sold for $231,039, which translates to $129.03 per square foot.

It's hard to imagine a more unique place than Ramona. It's a town that embraces past and present, inviting progress to continue but reserving a portions of its abundant lands for residents' enjoyment. Ramona's relaxed, small-town lifestyle has attracted newcomers in record numbers, as its thriving planned communities so clearly illustrate. But while growth continues, Ramona seems blissfully oblivious to it all, preferring to focus more on its quiet lifestyle and making no plans to change its status as San Diego County's last unincorporated region.

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