Montecito: Enclave of the Rich and Famous, but Not Flashy

LOS ANGELES -- Montecito is home to the rich and famous, but not flashy. It's exclusive, but not haughty. And it's far enough from the sprawl of Los Angeles for comfort -- while still close enough for convenience.

People who live in this coastal enclave tucked between the Pacific Ocean and the mountains call it a paradise, one that has long drawn old money and, in recent years, flush celebrities including Oprah Winfrey and Rob Lowe.

Residents extolled Montecito's charms Friday, even as the Santa Barbara community surrendered a swath of its multimillion-dollar homes to a brutal wildfire. Lowe and his family fled the approaching flames Thursday night, although their home had escaped damage as of midday Friday.

"It's very expensive, very dramatic. It's like the coast of Monte Carlo," with a perfect Mediterranean climate, said longtime real estate agent Bill Vaughan, who pegged the median value of homes -- despite the ongoing slump in housing prices -- at $2 million.

Lush stands of oak and eucalyptus trees give a wooded accent to Montecito, Vaughn noted, as well as increase the fire danger. About 10,000 people live in the unincorporated Santa Barbara County community, he said.

Families from the East Coast with industrial fortunes long ago discovered the area's charms, to be joined later by celebrities who found a pocket of luxury and seclusion not far from the Los Angeles-based entertainment industry.

Jeff Bridges, Ellen DeGeneres, John Cleese and Michael Douglas are among those who live in the area or once owned homes there. And Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and wife Maria Shriver have purchased a 25-acre tract for $4.7 million.

"If I were an autograph hound I'd have a nice thick book," said Debbie Ousey, owner of Tom's Montecito Coffee Shop. But when Lowe or comedian Jonathan Winters or other famous folk stop in, they can be sure they won't be pestered by fans, she said.

Montecito also has a sense of camaraderie and community spirit that belies its wealthy profile, she said.

"It's really pretty special. ... It's not snobby, wealthy people. Everybody supports everybody," Ousey said, adding that the town includes longtime residents who don't have big bank accounts or lavish homes.

But there can be tension engendered by the celebrity contingent, Vaughn said.

Winfrey's house is near the real estate agent's own home and "the paparazzi are just awful," Vaughn said, sounding annoyed as well about news reports focusing on the fire's effect on Montecito's celebrities and even their dogs.

Winfrey opened her show Friday with a report on the fire, which she said was about 2 miles from her home.

"All our prayers are with all the folks and neighbors in Santa Barbara. Hope you're well today," she said. "And those of you who lost your homes, our hearts go out to you."

Lowe gave a dramatic account of escaping the fire in a phone call to Oprah's show on Friday.

"My son and I were watching the football game and my wife, who was out running errands, called and said `Get out, the mountain's on fire,' and I thought she was kidding," Lowe said.

"I put the kids in the car, turned out of the driveway, and the entire mountain was on fire with flames shooting 200 feet in the air. "There was literally no warning. It came out of nowhere," he said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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