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A stoic little town faces tomorrow

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Sigfried Carrle angled his farmer's hat into a forceful wind roaring across the Antelope Valley. He did not blink, even when a fly bounced off his craggy cheek.

Dust curdled the air and shrouded the sun, and stalks of wheat trembled like the strings of a harp. The sign at Carrle's farm stand on the gravel shoulder of California 138, in the town of Neenach, read: "Last Chance Peaches." The landscape was so bleak it seemed prudent to ask: Before what?

But the produce was fresh and plump and grown in Carrle's backyard. So you picked through his crates -- a half-pound of green tomatoes at 50 cents a pound, a pound and a half of Fairtime peaches at $1.25 a pound, and on and on -- until your arms were full of a high school algebra question with no calculator in sight.

"What about five dollars?" Carrle shrugged.

Oh, it should be more than that. . . .

"Yes," Carrle said, then leaned in for effect. "It should, shouldn't it?"

What he meant, on the surface, was that there isn't a place for backyard farmers in modern commerce, that it costs him more to irrigate his tiny orchard than he could ever get for his fruit.

But it was a reminder, too, that the truly rural outposts of Los Angeles County -- the nation's top agricultural county not so long ago -- are withering away. And this one happens to abut the proposed site of the largest planned community in county history.

Neenach -- and a smattering of other forlorn towns hidden between Lancaster and the Grapevine -- will be the subject of a fierce dispute in the coming year over when enough is enough in Southern California.

On one side, advocates will wave studies showing that there are 6 million more people headed this way in the next 20 years, people who will need roofs over their heads. On the other side, activists will point out that once construction starts here -- above the historical northern boundary of the region's development -- there will be nothing to keep "Los Angeles" from turning into a vast, broken metropolis stretching from Tijuana to Bakersfield.

It would all be very apocalyptic-sounding, if only it was the kind of thing that got Neenach bent out of shape.

Life, by design, is gentle and dull here.

Eight hundred people, give or take, live in Neenach. Recreation consists largely of trying to grow a bigger squash than your neighbor or trying to buy his truck. One man races pigeons. The school closed a few years back when they ran out of kids, and its rose-painted walls are still the brightest thing on the prairie.

When the abutting development is built -- if it is built -- it will be called Centennial. It would be the end, for all intents and purposes, of Neenach.

Billed as a "new town," Centennial would be constructed on a chunk of the 165-year-old Tejon Ranch. There would be 23,000 homes, eight elementary schools, three fire stations.

Well aware of the lifestyle they are preparing to upend, managers of the project have launched a spirited marketing campaign to sell Centennial -- not to sell the houses, though that would come soon enough, but to sell the very idea.

They plan to pepper the development with open space and "gathering places" -- civic squares, parks -- intended to foster a small-town feel. Children would be encouraged to walk to school, which would indeed be revolutionary by Southern California standards.

In an effort to make Centennial "self-reliant" -- that's code for cutting down on commuter traffic -- they have pledged to create 30,000 local jobs. More than 1,000 would be required for construction alone: a new house every eight hours, on average, seven days a week, for 20 years.

Environmental advocates, suffice to say, are not impressed.

Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, a leading advocacy group opposing the development, said Centennial would be built on rare ecosystems, including the largest swath of native grassland left in California.

Those ecosystems are home to animals that deserve protection, she said: condors that fly overhead, a species of mouse that lives only on the interface between the Antelope Valley and the Tehachapi mountains.

That battle will play out in the next two years or so, first in front of county regulators and then, chances are, in court.

Neenach is divided into two camps too, just not in the usual big-developer-meets-small-town way.

There are those who wish they'd just get on with it.

And those who figure they'll be dead before it happens.

Joe Stamback, 71, represents the first camp.

He grew up in Compton but moved here in 1975 to get away "from the hustle and bustle and drugs," Stamback said on a recent afternoon, relaxing on his back porch as his dogs -- Lily, Jacko, Humphrey, Gracie and Sarah -- vied for his attention.

He soon discovered that you can grow just about anything in Neenach's soil; a year after he arrived, he celebrated the nation's bicentennial by growing red, white and blue grapes: red Candace, white Thompsons, blue Concords.

Back then, Neenach was a little livelier. There were community-wide potluck dinners, and on occasion old-timey bands would play into the wee hours. There were almost 80 members in the local 4-H Club. Since then, many of the kids move away as soon as they are able.

Stamback spends much of his time making his tri-tip, a local legend, which he sells to raise money for sports teams at a high school 25 miles away. Gardening has taken an even more central role. He grows his own walnuts and throws them in a cement mixer with rocks to get rid of the husks.

Construction, he notes, could have started by now if there hadn't been such a stink about "condors and minnows and all that crap." It would be nice, he said, to have a few more restaurants to choose from, something other than the Sizzler up the road in Gorman, though he noted the Sizzler does offer a fine buffet. In fact, he said, the whole deal has started to sound pretty good.

"Schools?" he said. "Parks? Shops? I could go for some of that."

The headquarters of the second camp is down the road, at the home of William R. Barnes.

By the front door, there is a hand-painted copy of the Pledge of Allegiance. Over the fireplace, there is an old rifle. Outside, past the family's graveyard of rusted-out hay rakes and grain threshers, is the land Barnes men have farmed since the 1800s, when Barnes' grandfather homesteaded in Neenach.

Standing in the fields, there's not much to look at it. But you can, he points out, see the big picture. Barnes sees a queasy and turbulent real estate market, which could help buffer Neenach from substantive change for years to come.

In other far-flung suburbs, block after block is dotted with for-sale signs and mortgage default notices. Many of those spots are -- as Centennial would be -- marketed to families of teachers and firefighters. Barnes knows, too, that there are other big developments in the north end of the county that could break ground before Centennial.

"It all depends on the economy," Barnes said. "And it's been rough."

He's right, said Centennial spokeswoman Barbara Sayre Casey. The construction plan, she said, "could be elongated if the market stays down."

Farming the same land for more than half a century gives you some perspective, Barnes said. He's a "dry" farmer, which means he relies on the rain; he's learned not to get too excited about the wet years or too depressed about the dry ones. Sixty years of marriage, 23 grandchildren, four great-grandchildren -- that's the important stuff, he said.

"All the rest, it don't bother me," he said. "I don't look for much to change."

scott.gold@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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