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Calabasas Cityhood Appears a Certainty : Incorporation: After 11 years of battles, residents will decide March 5 whether to become the county’s 88th municipality.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the months preceding Santa Clarita’s 1987 incorporation election, developers who feared a new city would inhibit their projects waged a fierce campaign to dissuade voters from supporting cityhood.

But in Calabasas, where residents will vote March 5 on whether to become the county’s 88th city, opposition to incorporation is almost nonexistent.

According to longtime community residents and activists, the reason is simple: After 10 years of rapid growth, there is only a small amount of vacant land left in the proposed city, so would-be developers have little reason to fear incorporation.

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While cityhood advocates were fighting for incorporation, more than 4,500 new single-family houses, condominiums and apartment buildings were built in Calabasas. And at least 800 more residences have already been approved for construction within the proposed city boundaries by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

“There’s not a lot of land in the city that’s virgin,” acknowledged Arnold Sank, vice president of the cityhood committee.

Despite the fact that development control was the original aim of incorporation, cityhood appears to be a virtual certainty for Calabasas. Community leaders say that residents are well aware of the advantages that cityhood can bring: local control of tax revenues, responsive government leaders and better services.

But scars from the 11-year battle remain and development is still an issue in an area where it appears growth will continue unabated for some time.

Many residents blame county bureaucrats and elected officials for stalling the cityhood drive while approving new projects. Even incorporation leaders have been criticized for negotiating a deal with a developer that will allow him to build hundreds of new residences. And most undeveloped land on the outskirts of the area was excluded from proposed city boundaries by the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission, leaving it under county jurisdiction.

“Agoura Hills was the fastest growing city in the county for several years after their incorporation and it was all stuff approved by L.A. County,” said Dave Brown, president of the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation. “We are going to have the same situation out here and what’s going to happen is that the city council is going to get blamed for it.”

Marvin Lopata, a cityhood activist and candidate for the proposed council, said LAFCO generally “does not want new cities to control a lot of vacant land, so they gerrymander maps to exclude it. We wanted more and we should have had more.”

Some community members also fault cityhood leaders for voluntarily relinquishing control over the largest tract of undeveloped land left in the proposed city--the 1,250 acres of rugged land southeast of the Ventura Freeway and Las Virgenes Road owned by The Baldwin Co.

Developer Jim Baldwin was a staunch opponent of cityhood, and stymied an early incorporation effort by recruiting his sister to file a lawsuit against LAFCO, according to cityhood leaders. But Baldwin withdrew his opposition in December, 1989, when cityhood leaders--after months of negotiations--agreed not to fight the developer’s plans to build 550 residences, a church and a commercial center.

Some community members say that cityhood leaders should not have agreed to let Baldwin build so many houses, and should have pushed harder for reduced density.

The General Plan for the area where Baldwin plans to build called for 132 houses, and in 1989 Supervisor Mike Antonovich promised the community that he would limit the company to building just 350 houses there.

“Baldwin is trampling on the city left and right,” said Michael Fichera, one of the 13 candidates for the Calabasas council. “Coaching from the sidelines is probably unfair, but the people who are doing the negotiating for the community made a mistake.”

But cityhood leaders who negotiated with the company defend the agreement, saying that it was the best deal they could extract from the developer, who originally envisioned about 1,500 residences there.

Without securing Baldwin’s support, they said, cityhood would have been doomed.

“We had no standing to make any more stringent demands on these folks,” said Dennis Washburn, one of the cityhood leaders who negotiated with the company. “We had no power.”

The drive for cityhood began more than 11 years ago when the Board of Supervisors took steps to permit more intensive development in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Concerned West Valley residents decided that forming a city with the power to set its own zoning laws was the best way to save the pristine land. They proposed creating the city of Rancho Las Virgenes, 44 square miles including the areas now incorporated as Agoura Hills and Westlake Village, with a population of about 32,000.

Proponents of Rancho Las Virgenes waged a heated battle. They feuded with alternative, pro-development cityhood groups; LAFCO staff members called their plan financially unfeasible; and Antonovich sought to create a smaller city of Agoura, leaving vast amounts of undeveloped land under county authority.

After two years, though, Rancho Las Virgenes supporters won the blessing of the LAFCO staff and their proposal was put before the commissioners for their approval.

But the day of the December, 1981, vote, the Los Angeles County Fire Department announced that the new city would have to pay $714,000 a year for fire protection in wilderness areas within city limits. It was the first time that any such cost had ever been mentioned and Rancho Las Virgenes’ budget projections showed it would be unable to foot the bill.

The commissioners questioned why the cost had not been mentioned earlier. They voted down Rancho Las Virgenes and instead gave the nod to put the rival Agoura Hills proposal before the voters.

Most Rancho Las Virgenes supporters believe that Antonovich--under pressure from developers who preferred to deal with the county than a new city--asked the Fire Department to create the cost to thwart incorporation, a charge that Antonovich denied in a letter that he sent to area residents shortly after the vote.

Dawson Oppenheimer, an Antonovich spokesman, said the supervisor never opposed incorporation--he just wanted to be sure that the city was fiscally viable.

“He wants people to know what the costs are going to be and he wants them to be confident of being able to administer their city,” Oppenheimer said.

After the defeat, Calabasas incorporation efforts faded. But in late 1984, cityhood supporters were given impetus to try again.

The city of Agoura Hills had asked county officials to put eastern Calabasas under its sphere of influence as a step toward eventual annexation. But many Calabasas residents did not want to be affiliated with what they considered a contentious, divided city.

They instead developed a plan for the 26-square-mile city of Calabasas, which they presented to LAFCO in March, 1987.

LAFCO staff members said such a large city, with all its open space, was financially unfeasible because of fire protection costs. They trimmed the proposed city to 14 square miles, and in July, 1987, LAFCO commissioners tentatively approved it.

But the commission also extended the deadline for property owners to request exclusion from the new city. Until then, there had been few developers openly opposed to incorporation. But after the tentative approval, several--including Baldwin--wanted out.

“A lot of developers had stayed back because it looked like we wouldn’t make it on the budget issue, so there was no reason to come in and ask for an exclusion. Why show yourself as a developer who wants out if the city was going to die anyway?” Sank said. “But we didn’t die and they came out of the woodwork.”

During the next several months, Sank said, cityhood leaders met with developers in a fruitless effort “to convince them that we were not anti-development” and to stay in the city.

In November, 1987, LAFCO commissioners removed about three square miles from the city, and LAFCO staff members were asked to present a new report on how the exclusions would affect the city’s financial viability. Baldwin’s land, however, had been left in the city.

Then Baldwin’s sister filed her lawsuit against LAFCO, charging that fire protection costs, which had not been factored into the budget, should be included.

A judge agreed and LAFCO staff prepared new financial projections. This time, the city was found to be financially unfeasible. In February, 1988, LAFCO rejected the Calabasas proposal.

Dismayed cityhood advocates decided they had to make peace with developers, particularly with Baldwin. They began negotiations, and in December, 1989, agreed to support the building of 550 residences on the land that Baldwin owns. Baldwin promised to support cityhood. Two months after the compromise, cityhood leaders resubmitted the proposal for a 14-square-mile city.

This time the developers did not seek to be excluded, and in July the city was found to be financially viable. In October, the Board of Supervisors set March 5 as the date for residents of the proposed city to vote on the proposal, the final step needed for approval.

After the long battle to put incorporation on the ballot, Sank said: “We are elated.”


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