Grazing Within Suburbia : Simi Valley: In the center of town, the Kadota Fig area harbors horses, goats and a conflict over development.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Barbara Hard was a bit nervous 13 years ago when she moved from rural Watsonville in Northern California to a much larger, more urban community--Simi Valley.

She felt out of place among the city's bustling shopping centers and crowded housing tracts. But Hard's anxiety vanished the moment she entered the Kadota Fig neighborhood, where her new home was situated.

The streets had no curbs, sidewalks or gutters. Fruit trees blossomed above spacious lawns. Horses grazed within wooden corrals.

"It was like coming to a big city and turning the corner--and suddenly you were in the country," Hard recalls.

In recent years, Kadota Fig residents such as Hard have been fighting to preserve the rural character of this unusual neighborhood in the middle of Simi Valley.

After months of boisterous community meetings and public hearings, the City Council late last year supported most of the residents' demands. The council agreed not to allow dense suburban development in most of Kadota Fig.

That decision suits Barbara Hard and her husband, George, who have added their own small-town touches to the neighborhood.

Beside their house, they've set up a lush garden with a fishpond and a waterfall. Next to it, they've placed an aviary filled with chirping finches.

In the front yard, they've built an elaborate model train layout, right behind a traditional white picket fence.

"It's wonderful," Barbara Hard says. "I wouldn't move away from here for any type of money."

But not all of her neighbors love the lifestyle.

Some believe the City Council's decision to leave most of Kadota Fig alone is misguided. Livestock and mini-farms just don't belong in the center of a modern suburb, they argue.

"Any neutral observer from any other planning department in the world would die laughing," says Curtis Minor, who has lived in the neighborhood for 22 years. "Can you name any other cities of 100,000 people that have horse property in the middle of town?"

Although the City Council's decision protects the rural character of Kadota Fig for now, some residents fear that the next home-building boom will reignite the debate.

Kadota Fig is a 448-acre neighborhood, bounded by Alamo Street on the north, Cochran, Leeds and Ralston streets on the south, Stearns Street on the east and Tapo Canyon Road on the west. Just over 2,400 people live there.

In most of the area, the city's zoning allows no more than one house per half-acre lot. Kadota Fig is one of the few Simi Valley neighborhoods where such animals as horses, pigs and chickens can be kept legally.

Most of the streets still have no sidewalks, curbs or gutters. The neighborhood has many spacious custom houses and well-maintained older dwellings.

But the area also has its share of poorly maintained residences with broken-down vehicles and unsightly refuse in plain view. In addition, the lack of curbs and storm sewers sometimes leads to flooding during rainy winters.

"It's kind of the price you pay for the Kadota Fig area," says Norman C. Rice, a housing contractor who has lived in the neighborhood since 1977 and recently finished building a custom house on his land.

Housing in Kadota Fig is so diverse partly because it has no homeowners associations. In more modern Simi Valley neighborhoods such as Wood Ranch, such organizations set strict rules on what a house can look like and how it must be maintained.

In contrast, Kadota Fig, with its large lots and few restrictions, "gives people the freedom to live their own kind of life on their own property," Rice said.

Longtime residents say the neighborhood's name dates back to some shady real estate deals in the 1920s and 1930s.

A now-defunct development company, trying to sell one-acre parcels in the area, planted Kadota fig trees on each lot, said Leroy E. Johnson, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1926.

When the figs were ripe, company officials promised that "they would pick them and pack them and give you the profits," Johnson says. "But there were never any profits." Nevertheless, a few fig trees remain in the area.

As additional incentives, the developers gave land buyers shares in a worthless oil well and stakes in a pigeon farm that also failed, Johnson said.

The neighborhood remained sparsely populated until outside water was piped in about 25 years ago, he recalled.

Urban development made an unpleasant intrusion when the Simi Valley Freeway was built--slicing right through the middle of Kadota Fig. The busy roadway continues to provide a noisy backdrop to the livestock pens and fruit groves.

During the real estate boom of the 1980s, some owners of large lots subdivided their land, sold part of it and used the money to build new houses on the remainder. Others took advantage of the rising values and sold all of their property to move farther away from the city.

More recently, like real estate elsewhere in Southern California, Kadota Fig houses have tumbled in price.

"There's a wide range because you have what I call 'junk' properties that might be worth about $150,000 and some nice houses," said Mark Troop, a Simi Valley real estate broker.

The more attractive properties may be priced up to $400,000. Still, Kadota Fig houses can be tough to sell because many buyers prefer to live in tidier, more modern suburban tracts with sidewalks.

"It's not an area that is attractive to your average buyer," said Troop. "It's basically an animal lover's paradise. They don't even see the other houses that are beat up."

The plummeting prices have created some remarkable bargains in Kadota Fig, real estate agents say.

Troop says one of his clients is closing escrow on a two-story custom house that sold for $315,000 when it was built in 1991. The original buyer could not make the payments, and a bank foreclosed.

Troop's client snapped it up for $235,000, he says.

Trying to get the most money for their property, some Kadota Fig landowners have asked city leaders to rezone their land. New zoning that allows more houses per acre could significantly increase its value.

But other residents fear that dense development would spoil Kadota Fig's rural flavor and make it more difficult to keep horses and other livestock.

"This is a unique area, and once it's lost, it's lost," says Kathleen Blackwell, who has two horses and a house on her one-acre Kadota Fig lot. "I don't plan on cashing out. I plan on staying here."

Blackwell and contractor Rice were members of an advisory panel the City Council appointed in 1991 to help determine what changes--if any--needed to be made in the building rules for Kadota Fig.

"We felt that the condo people were coming in, and they were going to buy little bits and pieces," Rice recalls. "They were going to build big condos and ruin the character of the neighborhood."

But other residents insisted that changes were needed, particularly along Cochran Street, just west of Stearns Street.

Even though Cochran has become one of Simi Valley's busiest east-west thoroughfares, the zoning on this stretch allows only two houses per acre.

"Its present level of density just doesn't take into account the cost of land," says Councilwoman Sandi Webb, who served on the Kadota Fig advisory panel. "Nobody is going to build there. They wouldn't get a return on their investment."

A majority on the advisory committee supported a small increase in the number of dwellings that can be built on some of the Cochran lots.

But on certain lots near the southwest corner of Cochran and Stearns, the council initially stuck with the two-houses-per-acre limit, as the advisory panel urged.

"It was a compromise (supported by) the 'horse people,' who somehow were able to be the majority of the committee," says James Barlow, who served on the panel. "I was literally the only person on the committee who lived on Cochran."

Barlow, who owns two acres, doesn't believe the modest density changes endorsed by the committee, will benefit him because home-building costs are so high. "Right now, I can't see clearly how I can possibly develop my property," he says.

Jeff Holt, who, like Barlow, owns three acres on the south side of Cochran, believes the makeup of the advisory committee was slanted to favor horse owners and others who want to keep Kadota Fig rural.

"The majority of the property owners along Cochran Street said they weren't fairly represented," Holt says. "They wanted change."

In June the City Council reconsidered the zoning for the south side of Cochran. The council told the city staff to prepare new development rules for this section, allowing up to 10 houses per acre.

Before a final decision is made in about a year, the council will conduct hearings on the proposal. Any increase in density will almost certainly be opposed by many residents of Leeds Street, just south of Cochran.

Leeds, on the southeastern edge of Kadota Fig, is home to a number of outspoken residents who own horses. They have lobbied hard against increased development on nearby Cochran, saying it threatens their lifestyle.

"In my opinion, if the City Council changes the zoning in the area surrounding Leeds Street, it's a death sentence," says Joyce Stone, a Leeds resident who served on the advisory panel.

Stone's 8-year-old twins, Lauren and Luke, often ride the family's two horses in the back yard and through the neighborhood. If suburban tract houses are built on Cochran, immediately north of her yard, the new owners will almost certainly complain about flies and horse odors, Stone says.

"You cannot back horse property up to higher density (housing) and expect it to work," she says. "Regardless if the horses are there first, people may not like it. Then problems are going to happen."

But Jake Faller, a planning consultant for two Cochran Street landowners, says such conflicts can be averted. He says the city simply needs to require that home buyers on Cochran be notified that horses are nearby and that related odors and insects may be present.

"As long as people moving into the area recognize this and know what they're getting into, that should take care of it," Faller says.

Leeds Street residents believe the Cochran Street landowners, in their bid to build more houses per acre, are motivated solely by greed.

But Faller says Leeds Street and the rest of the Kadota Fig neighborhood may no longer be a safe or appropriate place to keep horses and other livestock.

"The city has built up around that area," he says. "It's not a rural area, even though some people want to retain the rural atmosphere. They're an island. They're surrounded by urban development. That's a fact."

Still, horse owner Stone, whose family moved to Leeds Street when she was 10, says most people on her block believe Simi Valley still has room for people who prefer country living.

"I've grown up appreciating this type of environment, where I have some breathing space," she says. "You can walk down Leeds Street and still see some peacocks crossing the road and people riding their horses. You have the occasional goat in your front yard, eating your flowers."

Stone and her neighbors have vowed to fight any zoning changes that would allow more intense development nearby. "Leeds is going to keep hitting back," she says.

For now, the City Council has agreed not to change zoning for Kadota Fig areas north of the Simi Valley Freeway or along Leeds Street. Some higher-density housing tentatively will be allowed south of the freeway, west of Fig Street and north of Cochran Street.

Another section--south of the freeway, between Tapo and Fig streets--will be the subject of a city planning study aimed at proposing both conservation measures and improvements.

Apricot Road, which runs through the heart of this section, boasts a range of buildings, from well-maintained to dilapidated.

Lucy Chavez, who has lived on Apricot since 1957, believes city leaders neglected her section of Kadota Fig in their rush to please those with livestock.

"The City Council and the Planning Commission are partial to the horse owners and the people who own the most land," Chavez says. "We thought we got shortchanged."

Chavez, 77, has put her house up for sale. But she says few buyers are interested after they get a look at unsightly conditions along parts of the street.

"We need sidewalks, and we need water gutters more than anything because our driveways get flooded (during winter storms)," she says. "From my point of view, Apricot Road has deteriorated since I moved here."

Orville Johnson, another longtime resident on nearby Fig Street, has mixed emotions about the tug of war between those who want to save the rural character and those who favor development.

Johnson, a retired sheriff's deputy, spends much of his time tending the rose garden in front of the house his father built. He frequently chats with passersby while relaxing on his spacious white porch.

Although he enjoys the small-town friendliness of his street, Johnson says the rural life has its drawbacks.

"I've got a woman who lives behind me--she has a dozen horses," Johnson says. "My yard is always covered with dust. I don't know if we need that many horses next to a residential area."

With a laugh, Johnson adds: "After 67 years, I haven't made up my mind whether I like this area or not. Now I'm too old to move."

Kadota Fig At a Glance

Population 2,431

Racial Breakdown White 76.8% Latino 17.6% Asian 4.3% Black 0.9% Other 0.4%

Education (residents 25 and older) High school diploma 84.1% College degree 22.1%

Median household income: $44,982 Households earning less than $12,500: 11.1% Households earning more than $75,000: 20.4% Source: U.S. Census Bureau

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