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Builders Not Happy With Consensus for Property : Thousand Oaks: Neighbors have their say. Father and son vow to go to court to protect $7-million investment.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Frustrated with an impasse that has blocked construction on a triangular lot in Newbury Park, Los Angeles developers and the Thousand Oaks City Council are testing a novel approach to reaching consensus.

Developer Nedjatollah Cohan and his son have agreed to listen to the neighbors’ suggestions about what kind of development they would consider most appropriate for the 47-acre property southwest of Reino Road and Kimber Drive.

Instructed to start from scratch, some participants are going to draft entirely new proposals for the property. Within the next two weeks, an Agoura Hills consulting firm will assemble a development plan incorporating both the residents’ ideas and the developers’ sketches.

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But after the first public forum, a rowdy three-hour meeting Thursday night, both father and son seemed disillusioned with the process--and both vowed to go to court to protect their $7-million investment.

They have already filed a lawsuit against the City Council, which in July rejected their plan to build 170 housing units and a 117,600-square-foot shopping center on the property. The 4-1 council vote, which prompted the elder Cohan to collapse on the floor in tears, overrode an earlier Planning Commission decision to allow the development.

“They’re trying to strong-arm us into giving up our private property rights,” said Albert Cohen, Nedjatollah’s son, who changed the spelling of his family name.

City officials, however, said they believed the only way to break the logjam was to involve neighbors who strenuously objected to the initial development proposal.

Although Thursday’s discussion seemed to go around in circles--with residents attacking the development and Cohen defending his right to build--city leaders appeared encouraged.

“It’s a totally different approach for our city--we’re asking the citizens, ‘What do you want to see in your neighborhood?’ ” Councilman Frank Schillo said. “We’re saying to Cohen, ‘If you want to build here, this is what the citizens want to see.’ ”

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But, as Thursday’s forum revealed, what the citizens want often clashes with the developers’ plans.

Although he promised to remain flexible, Cohen said he thought the project would turn a profit only if he is allowed to build a strip mall on at least some of the 12 acres zoned for commercial use.

Nearly unanimously, however, neighbors insisted that development be limited to single-family homes on spacious lots.

“I have a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, because I love this area and I can feel it slipping away,” said Robert Ninneman, 66, who has lived a block away from the proposed development for 25 years.

“All I can see happening is more crime, more traffic and worse air quality. This might be called progress, but it scares me,” he told the group of about 150 area residents.

Cohan and son appeared frustrated by the group’s unwillingness to consider even stand-alone businesses or service-oriented offices such as health clubs or cafes.

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Afterward, Cohen decried the meeting as a “stalling tactic” designed to keep him from fighting the city in court. Cohen had put the lawsuit on hold to give the negotiations a chance.

But on Thursday, he vowed to reactivate the suit if the consultants do not produce a viable development plan within a month.

“When I bought the property, I didn’t go to the people to ask what I could do with it--I went to the city and they told me I could build a regional shopping center there,” Cohan said. He noted that despite a zoning change several years ago, about a quarter of his land remains legally available for commercial construction.

“These people believe I have to give the land up to a park or I should allow people to go golfing there,” he said. “They think we are millionaires. I paid for the property and I intend to use it.”

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