The future of Calabasas rests in a weed-choked lot at the end of a freeway off-ramp.
Tucked in the city's otherwise scenic west end, the lot is the proposed site of a Price Club discount store. But more is at stake than building an industrial cavern where suburbanites can buy five-gallon tubs of mayonnaise and crates of toilet paper.
The decision on whether or not the Price Club is built will largely define how the Las Virgenes Valley develops and what kind of services the 2-year-old city can offer.
"The image of Calabasas is either going to be the beautiful rolling hills or it's going to be a line of major retailers," resident Peter Eason said. "We are going to emerge as a retail shopping Mecca as opposed to a gateway to a national recreation area."
But major retailers like the Price Club generate the sales taxes that cash-strapped cities depend on to put cops on the beat, books in the library and kick balls on the playgrounds. Some Calabasas officials argue that without the Price Club--which would generate an estimated $800,000 in sales tax each year--the city may have to forgo many of the extras.
"There is no such thing as a free lunch," Councilwoman Karyn Foley said.
So city leaders and residents now face a difficult decision: What sort of city do they want Calabasas to be--a largely residential suburb with few services or a more self-contained community with all the trappings of cityhood?
There is no easy answer, as officials of maturing cities such as Santa Clarita, Agoura Hills and Westlake Village can attest.
It is an educational process for both leaders and residents, as the idealism and provincialism that gave birth to the city are balanced against the practicalities of keeping it afloat.
But democracy often is messy.
Late last week, more than 200 people crammed the Calabasas High School auditorium to rail against the Price Club project at the intersection of Lost Hills and Agoura roads. Peppered among complaints about traffic and trash and crime, many speakers took shots at the Planning Commission and City Council, charging them with looking only at the project's financial benefits. The commission is expected to vote on the project within the next several weeks unless the Price Club withdraws its proposal.
"Cash box planning," the critics sneered. Some threatened recall elections. Some even suggested disbanding the city altogether.
"What's the purpose of having a city if we have the same garbage heaped upon us that was heaped upon us by the county?" one man asked to thunderous applause from the audience. Planning commissioners just shook their heads.
Two years ago, many of these same people packed the same auditorium to fete council members elected to run the newly formed city. An overwhelming 91% of the area's voters supported incorporation in 1991 to escape the control of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
Now, the five council members are facing many of the same charges of thoughtless planning they leveled against the Board of Supervisors for years.
Moreover, the unity of incorporation has given way to factionalism within Calabasas itself, with residents in the newer west side complaining that all the council members--and four planning commissioners--come from the east side of town.
The council, the west siders say, is balancing the budget on the back of their neighborhood.
Indeed, the Price Club would boost annual city sales tax revenues by 67% from a current $1.2 million. That money could pay for extra police or longer library hours or could help build a community center--all things that residents have told the council they want.
Such services are vital, not extras, Foley said. She stressed that she is leaning against the Price Club because of public outcry. She added, however: "This is the sugar that makes the medicine of life go down. Life is hard. Life is bad-tasting medicine, especially now. But how are you going to pay for this sugar? Retail sales tax."
Added Councilman Marvin Lopata: "It would be nice if we had no development, but no development leads to stagnation and stagnation leads to decline. You end up with a city that cannot pay the bills and you end up with a city that is backward."
Up and down the state, cities recognize outlets such as the Price Club as a quick and easy way to Band-Aid their bleeding coffers. Cities like Moreno Valley in Riverside County go so far as to rebate half a store's annual sales tax to lure a company.
But, as one longtime resident pointed out, "Calabasas is different."
"We are happy to sacrifice libraries and parks for the time being so this city can grow at a proper and reasonable rate," Gail Langer said. "But if Price Club moves in, this neighborhood is going to turn into a ghetto."
Langer said that construction of a Price Club will attract fast food restaurants or other bulk retailers, setting a troubling precedent because Calabasas has yet to complete its General Plan.
"People say we have to pay for things, but that doesn't mean we are willing to sacrifice the sanctity and beauty of the surrounding area in order to pay," Eason said. "People live here because they want to get away."
For their part, Calabasas officials say the argument over Price Club has degenerated into an emotional, counterproductive spat that threatens to divide the city. Mayor Bob Hill said that council members, all of whom are former homeowners association leaders, would never do anything to harm the city or its image.
"This feeling of local selfishness has to be addressed," Hill said, referring to the west siders. "There needs to be a much broader view of what the city's needs are. Not that Price Club absolutely needs to be there, because I'm not convinced it does. But everybody has a project in their neighborhood they may not like."
That's putting it mildly. The very development that is home to most of the Price Club's opponents was itself vigorously opposed in the 1980s by residents who said it would destroy the area's natural beauty. Two council members--Dennis Washburn and Lesley Devine--sued to block construction.
The benefit, council members and supporters say, is that local decisions are made locally, not in downtown Los Angeles.
"Regardless of whether anyone approves or disapproves of a particular project, this is a council extraordinarily open to citizen input and concerns," said Les Hardie, president of the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation. "If and when something does get built, it will not be something that was crammed down the throats of the people of Calabasas."
Calabasas: A Statistical Portrait
Incorporated: April 5, 1991
Size: 10.5 square miles
Median age: 38.9
Median home value: $482,350
Per capita income: $41,549
Median family income: $89,157
Total registered voters: 11,472
Registered Democrats: 5,027
Registered Republicans: 4,841
Sources: City of Calabasas, Los Angeles County, U. S. Census Bureau