So You Want to Live in ... Pismo Beach, California

Mark Gibson
Halfway between San Francisco and
Los Angeles sits a little town that's so sure of its persona, its Web address is ""

Say "California coast" and an image of surf, sun, and sand typically comes to mind. Add cute shops, divey restaurants, and a backdrop of oak-studded hills abutting vineyards just beyond view and you've got the recipe for Pismo Beach.

The historic town, which incorporates the village of Shell Beach, lies at the heart of a cluster of adjoining communities―Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, Oceano, and nearby Avila Beach. They feel more like neighborhoods than separate entities.

Massachusetts transplants Jim and Mary Zell moved to the area four years ago. Mary had stiff requirements for a new hometown: ocean view, no humidity, close to a college, good medical services, and topography higher than 40 feet. "That last one ruled out Florida," she says with a laugh. Jim extended the list: "Warm, affordable, not too crowded, and what will the place be like in 10 years?"

Having lived in Northern California some years ago, they quickly fastened on Central California as the perfect match. That led to three months' traveling between Central Coast bookend cities Monterey and Santa Barbara to find their dream, water-view home here. "The price was right, and I think this area will still be great years from now," Jim says.

Connie Marangi, a past president of the Five Cities Newcomers' Club, loves the gusto of the place she's called home for nine years. "You know the bowling alley next to the saltwater taffy place?" she asks. "My girlfriends and I meet there twice a month, and we giggle and cut up the whole time. Someone asked us the other day, 'What are you girls drinking?' I said, 'We haven't had a drop. We're just having fun.'"

Pismo's serious side has equal appeal. Connie says that where she grew up "was so huge, if disaster struck, you'd read about it. In Pismo, if something happens, we'll throw a barbecue to raise funds." Connie's energetic, altruistic side gets a real workout here. She's a docent at the Monarch Butterfly Grove and gives interactive talks with kids about the region's American Indian Chumash culture at the Pismo Nature Center.

Real estate broker Lenny Jones never found a reason to leave this area except for college and military service. "There's no other oceanfront [town] between Pismo and Santa Barbara," he says. "It's the only place on the California coast where you can drive on the beach [south of Grand Avenue only]. And traffic? It's 10 to 15 minutes to anywhere."

Having prestigious California Polytechnic State University nearby also enlivens and adds value, Lenny says. If students can't make it here with their degrees in engineering, architecture, agriculture, et cetera, he notes, "They'll have their careers elsewhere. But after a few years, they'll call up and say, 'I'm coming back.'"

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