Defending the Groves : Development: Plans for a housing tract threaten orchards west of Santa Paula, awakening the 'sleepy little town' to the debate over growth.


The debate over whether to develop or preserve agricultural land in Ventura County has reached Santa Paula, which is deeply divided over a plan to turn citrus groves into a housing development.

Growth control elsewhere has pushed builders deeper into agricultural country in search of land, officials say. With growth pressure comes no-growth reaction.

Groups promoting strict limits to growth have been organized in Santa Paula, where development has gone almost unopposed for decades.

"Santa Paula never even talked about development six months ago," lumberyard owner John Wisda said. "We were a sleepy little town."

Santa Paulans were roused last year after Orange County developer Harry Tancredi persuaded civic leaders to look at expanding the city limits to encompass his proposed development on the west end of town.

Tancredi's proposal is to build 126 tract houses on 30 of the 500 acres on the western edge of Santa Paula that are now taken up by citrus and avocado groves and sprawling ranch homes.

Those houses would be designed for higher-income buyers and range in price from $275,000 to $375,000.

But community opposition could thwart Tancredi's plan, growth opponents say. One group, Citizens for Responsible Development, already has begun to campaign for tougher city development policies.

The group was formed to protest the development in January, when Santa Paula City Council members appeared willing to go forward with Tancredi's proposal. The council has since put the development on hold until the city's general plan is updated later this year.

One of the group's leaders, Jim Procter, a fourth-generation Santa Paulan whose family settled in the largely rural town in 1883, said he feels no need to accept arguments that builders have already been rejected elsewhere.

"I think that, with Ventura shutting the door and other areas turning the screws on development, we expect to see more pressure in and around Santa Paula," Procter said.

Richard Main, chairman of Citizens for Sound Environmental Policy, argues that some development is inevitable, but he wants fewer homes than Tancredi is proposing and a development that would save most of the trees.

Main said he took refuge in Santa Paula six years ago, after he left a similar agricultural community facing development in northern San Diego County. His home sits on property bordering the land where Tancredi plans to build homes.

"We believe that the environment, agriculture and the wishes of the people, especially those on the west side of town and in the county . . . have more rights collectively than any developer whose sole motivation is financial and who does not live in the area," Main said.

To city officials, the west is the only place to grow. Hemmed in by the mountains to the north and the Santa Clara River to the south, the west side is one of the only places left where houses can be built without clashing with industry, said Joan Kus, the city's planning director.

The city's population, about 24,000, has inched up at the rate of 1% a year since the 1960s, with no new annexations, Kus said. That is about half the growth rate for the county.

During the last 20 years, the city has gradually filled undeveloped pockets with new homes instead of annexing land around the city.

In fact, the city's declared sphere of influence actually shrank years ago when it gave away control over the land now being proposed for Tancredi's development, Mayor Les Maland said.

About half the 500 acres the city is considering for development already are within the city and fall within the general plan.

The other half of the land is outside the city and the city's official sphere of influence. But the city has never lost sight of developing that land someday, Maland said. The debate focuses on whether the land outside the city's influence sphere should be annexed.

Instead of creating a crush of development, Tancredi argues that he will develop the land with new homes over six years rather than build 126 at one time.

Santa Paula's growth rate is among the slowest in Ventura County, but its reaction is not unusual, county planners said.

"I think there are a lot of people in Ventura County, and they look at L.A. County, Orange County, Riverside County and San Diego County and they're saying, 'Please don't let that happen here,' " said Bruce Smith, who supervises the county planning department.

A close-knit community fiercely protective of its small-town atmosphere, Santa Paula was the first city in the county to draft greenbelt agreements--on its eastern and western borders--to keep away encroaching development.

Although the area of proposed development is just outside the greenbelt on the western border, many residents believe it is the first step in ushering in more and more homes that will eventually mean the destruction of the groves.

Not everyone is convinced that the preservation of the groves will be good for Santa Paula. Some business leaders are becoming concerned that zero population growth will mean economic stagnation for Santa Paula retailers.

Many stores have already abandoned Santa Paula's once-healthy business district on Main Street because of declining retail sales, and the city is trying to revitalize the ailing downtown, said lumberyard owner Wisda, who has firmly challenged opponents of growth.

According to a study compiled for the city in September, Santa Paula is losing $76 million a year to shoppers who go to Ventura. The city's $20,800 median income is among the lowest in the county.

One remedy to the business slump, Wisda said, would be housing developments for middle-income and high-income homeowners. Without such developments, Wisda said, the city will increasingly become a low-income area with increasing gang and crime problems.

"We're not a Mayberry R.F.D., and people are kidding themselves when they compare themselves to it," Wisda said.

Some longtime residents are unwilling to change, even if it means economic stagnation. They argue that agriculture is the city's primary industry and has been since Santa Paula was founded in 1902.

Louie Hengehold, 36, whose family has run a feed store in town for 35 years, recalled a recent town meeting at which someone described Santa Paula as a "backward" community.

"My mom looked at him and said, 'Some of us like it that way,' " he said.

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