Moorpark Struggles With Identity as It Grows : Development: Population has soared, leaving the city divided by class and race. Now officials are considering expansion.

After a decade of intense growth that has virtually divided Moorpark into two separate communities, city officials are faced with deciding where and how much development will now take place.

During the next few months the City Council will decide whether to seek expansion of the city's boundaries, a move that could more than double the size of the city and its current housing stock.

But while preparing to confront its future, the city continues to struggle with the growth experienced in previous years, growth that has diminished much of Moorpark's rural character and small-town charm.

"Gone are the days when people knew everybody in town," Councilman Bernardo M. Perez said.

During the 1980s, Moorpark became both the newest and the fastest-growing city in the county. After incorporation in 1983, the city's population soared from 7,798 to 25,494.

Development charged up the hillsides, replacing apricot and peach orchards with tract houses, turning what was once a sleepy farming community into a suburban enclave for traffic- and crime-weary Angelenos.

When the dust settled, officials and residents found that the city had not only grown larger, but had also become segmented by geography, class and race.

In 1980, roughly 50% of the population was Anglo and the remainder was Latino. Today, it's 75% Anglo, according to the 1990 census.

The majority of new development was south of the Arroyo Simi, a flood control channel that for many has become a physical and psychological boundary between old and new residents, between the haves and have-nots.

While the older downtown area remains populated mostly by middle- and low-income Latinos, the rolling hills to the south have given way to large, upscale subdivisions with names like Peach Hill and Mountain Meadows. Houses start at about $250,000.

More than half of the new homeowners are commuters who work in Los Angeles and outlying areas. Many of them admit that they are not interested in seeing Moorpark become a metropolis.

"I think I'd like to have it grow a little more but still remain a bedroom community," said Patti Smith, president of the Mountain Meadows Neighborhood Council. "I just prefer to live away from the business of a big town."

Mary Dolliver, who lives in Mountain Meadows, said most of her neighbors shop where they work, often in Thousand Oaks or Simi Valley, and seldom go into downtown Moorpark.

"Most of the people have moved here from the San Fernando Valley and from Los Angeles," Dolliver said. "I think their minds are geared towards freeways."

But the tendency of new residents to work and shop outside Moorpark has only widened the gap between the newer neighborhoods and the older downtown community.

"There is definitely a split," said Roy Talley, a longtime downtown resident who was elected to the City Council in March. "To the older residents, the new people are outsiders."

Mayor Paul W. Lawrason, a Peach Hill resident, said some Moorpark residents are envious of the more affluent people who have moved into the hills.

"I think the people in downtown feel like they've lost touch and control with what's happening," he said. "The city has grown beyond them. At one time it was a friendly, I-know-everybody kind of town, and now it's grown and that is no longer the case."

Even the younger people of Moorpark are keenly aware of the invisible boundaries that have sprung up around them.

Moorpark High School student Ruben Rodriguez, 15, who lives downtown, said the differences between his part of town and the newer hillside neighborhoods are clear.

"They're Mexicans down here, and they're white people up there," he said. "They're rich up there, and they're poor down here."

Student Chris Fligiel, 16, who lives in a neighborhood adjacent to Mountain Meadows, said he knows people who don't shop at Hughes Market downtown because they are afraid, not because it is inconvenient. Hughes is the city's only large grocery store.

"I know people who don't want to go down to the store because there are Mexicans there," he said. "They think all Mexicans are gang members and they carry guns."

Whatever the reason, residents and officials agreed that most of the newcomers to Moorpark don't shop there and rarely, if ever, go downtown.

Another example of the division is how difficult it was for Moorpark residents to agree on boundaries for future schools.

The district convened a public task force, which debated for 20 months how to redraw the boundaries to accommodate new schools.

"There were some arguments made, 'Well why don't we go to neighborhood schools?' " Supt. Thomas Duffy said. But, he said, "there's no chance of us doing that without disenfranchising some students" because of the income disparities among the neighborhoods.

The new boundaries were finally approved by the school board to avoid neighborhood segregation, Duffy said.

"The schools are committed to making sure we're part of the glue" that holds the community together, he said.

Moorpark High School Principal Cary Dritz agreed, noting that integration of the community's youth starts at the elementary school.

"A lot of these kids are best friends by the time we get them," he said. "I think the communities come together at the high school. A lot of these kids, the only place where they see each other is here."

Stratification, separating upper- and lower-income residents and whites and Latinos, "has always been a concern" in Moorpark, said Jim Hartley, a former member of the Planning Commission and City Council.

The issue came to the forefront again recently during public hearings on a low-income apartment complex proposed for downtown.

The proposal fit the requirements of the city's General Plan, which concentrates apartments and other high-density housing downtown. But the City Council turned down the proposal after neighboring residents complained that the city was jamming all the low-income housing into one area.

Planning Commissioner Steve Brodsky agreed.

"I see a lot of resentment from the people who live downtown, and rightfully so, because (the newer developments are) where all the dollars are," he said. "And that's where it appears the power is."

City officials see the revitalization of Moorpark's historic downtown as a key to healing the divisiveness in the community.

"We have to retain a sense of identity and a sense of community," Perez said. "Our best hope for that is downtown Moorpark."

But officials have had little success in implementing any of their plans for sprucing up downtown.

Hoping to pump money into the area, the city established a redevelopment agency two years ago. Property taxes from the area were to be used to make street improvements and provide low-interest loans and grants to business owners who wanted to improve their downtown properties.

But no sooner had the agency been formed than the county filed suit against the city over what percentage of property taxes each should get. A settlement has yet to be reached, preventing the city from using its share of the funds, estimated at more than $250,000.

The city also has been entangled for two years in a lawsuit with the school district over land the city wants for a downtown park. The dispute centers on how much the city should pay to obtain the former Moorpark Memorial High School football field and gymnasium.

The city has maintained that a state law called the Naylor Act requires the school district to sell up to 30% of the site to the city for 25% of the market value. However, the district is challenging the law in the state Supreme Court. A ruling is expected in the next few months.

And while the government agencies wrangle, downtown merchants said, the city could be doing more to help lure people to High Street, the main downtown thoroughfare.

Luis and Joan Martinez, who own and operate the Cactus Patch Restaurant, said they would like to see more promotion of the area by the city and the Chamber of Commerce. They said they would also like to see the city relax some of its strict regulations that prohibit them from setting up tables and chairs on the sidewalk.

"We need more support from the city," Luis Martinez said. "If more people come, more businesses will be developed."

Martinez said most of his customers are longtime downtown residents and business owners. He said he would like to see more people from the newer sections of town frequenting his restaurant.

"We want the people from the hills to come and see us," said Martinez, a professionally trained chef. "We just want them to give us the opportunity to prove to them what we can do."

Chamber officials said the agency is developing a promotional campaign for the downtown area.

Councilman Talley said he also is pushing for the city to create a special district for the downtown area that will allow merchants more flexibility in expanding or promoting their businesses.

He said the city has already helped some merchants. For example, he said, the city agreed to allow the owner of a new barbecue restaurant on High Street to cook outside.

But even Talley acknowledged that "we need to work more aggressively on the downtown."

He said city officials are talking with Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) about relocating the city's post office from a Los Angeles Avenue shopping center to High Street. He said this will give those residents who never venture downtown an opportunity to discover the area.

Officials said they also believe that a commuter train, which will link Moorpark and Simi Valley with Los Angeles beginning in November, 1992, will generate interest in downtown where the train depot is located.

"We have great hopes that getting the commuter train going will stimulate commerce in the downtown area," Lawrason said. "We hope it will make it a more active, more central place for people to go."

Meanwhile, there is little doubt that the city, whose boundaries have already begun to merge with those of Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley, will continue to grow. County planners predict that the city's population will pass 47,000 by the year 2010.

The issues before the city now are how quickly growth should occur--and where.

The Planning Commission will begin hearings this week on whether to recommend City Council approval of a study to expand Moorpark's sphere of influence--the land the city wants declared eligible for annexation. The study area encompasses 18.4 square miles outside the 12.3-square-mile city.

The proposed-expansion study was prompted by developers wanting to build large housing projects. One proposal calls for 3,221 housing units to be built on 4,000 acres, while another would build 1,316 housing units on 2,372 acres. Both project sites are located north of the city.

Three other proposed developments on the city's west end would put 941 housing units on 1,905 acres.

If all the project sites are incorporated into the city and built as proposed, the number of housing units in Moorpark would nearly double.

And that does not include several other projects inside the city limits, which, if approved, would add 2,000 residences.

With the prospect of so many new and large developments on the horizon, the city has found itself torn between wanting to contain growth and reaping the benefits that come with it.

Lawrason, who was labeled a "developers' lackey" by his opponent and former council colleague Clint Harper in the November, 1990, mayoral election, said the city needs some growth to boost economic development and create more jobs.

"I think it's healthy for us to grow, but we have to plan very carefully," Lawrason said. "We also have to keep our finger on the pulse of how the people feel."

But some residents, like slow-growth advocate Wally Todd, said that the city has already experienced "too much growth, too quickly," resulting in overcrowded schools and increased traffic congestion.

"If there's any hope in our community," he said, "it's to slow things down."

Lawrason said the main reason the city is considering expanding its sphere is to give it more control of areas outside the city. He said it doesn't necessarily mean that the projects proposed in those areas will be built and, if they are, that they won't be scaled down.

The mayor also pointed out that the city still has a slow-growth ordinance that limits to 270 the number of building permits that can be issued each year. Although he did not support the measure, passed by voters in 1986, Lawrason said he favors extending it when it expires in 1994--as do the majority of council members.

"It's a real tricky situation," Councilman Perez said of the prospect of enlarging the city's boundaries. "A lot of people moved out here for the quality of life--the air quality, the lack of traffic and for safety. At the same time, people expect a certain level of services."

The only sure way to pay for some of those services is through development, he said.

For example, officials have long talked about building a bypass road north of the city to alleviate some of the heavy traffic on California 118, which runs through the center of town.

Because of a shortage of both state and county highway funds, Perez said, development money may be the only way that such a roadway would be built.

At the same time, he said, if the city expands too much, it risks losing its historical and cultural identity.

"We're at the cutting edge right now," Perez said. "We're a new city. We're still of a size where the problems are manageable. We still have a say in our future."

Lozano is a Times staff writer and Davis is a correspondent.

Moorpark's Possible Boundaries

Proposed Developments

Moorpark city planners are reviewing several proposed housing projects, five of which may proceed only if the city is allowed to expand its boundaries. The five projects lie outside the city.

1) Regional Park Area: 1 project, 1,316 housing units.

2) Strathearn Ranch Area: 1 project, 3,221 units.

3) Rancho Simi Area: 1 project, 351 units.

4) Rancho Simi Area: 1 project, 321 units.

5) Rancho Simi Area: 1 project, 269 units.

Total units: 5,478

Source: Moorpark Planning Department

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