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Growing Number Urge City to Relax the Rules : Thousand Oaks: Survey finds most residents seek to avoid urban crush, but an increasing percentage want building regulations eased.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Week after week, Thousand Oaks residents beg their elected officials to preserve the majestic oaks and jagged ridgelines that separate their city from the dreaded San Fernando Valley.

A solid majority of residents reiterated that plea in a community attitude survey to be released Tuesday: They don’t want blinking neon signs, they don’t want looming concrete buildings, and they don’t want cluttered residential streets.

But a growing minority objects to such blanket restrictions and wants Thousand Oaks officials to relax rules about building design, business signs and oak tree preservation.

On virtually every issue presented in the 12-page survey, which was randomly mailed to one-quarter of the city’s households, the percentage of residents urging Thousand Oaks to “ease restrictions” has jumped significantly since the last poll in 1989.

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The loosen-up faction did not muster a majority on any one question. Indeed, in some cases, a great many people requested tougher regulations. But the results suggested that an increasing number of residents have begun to chafe under Thousand Oaks’ notoriously stringent rules.

“It seems to be lightening up a little around here,” longtime resident Larry Janss commented.

For example:

* Of the 2,737 respondents, 25% wanted more freedom to paint their buildings in shades other than city-sanctioned earth tones. Only 15% of respondents had asked for an expansion of the beige-and-rust palette five years ago.

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* The percentage urging the council to relax “business sign regulation” has tripled since the last survey, to 19%.

* Nearly 14% of respondents asked the city to ease up on the many laws governing residential neighborhoods. In the last poll, only 6% favored relaxing the codes, which restrict activities like installing satellite dishes and parking RVs or boats.

* Significantly more residents now approve of buildings higher than three stories. In the most recent survey, support for tall buildings in industrial areas almost doubled, to 30%. In addition, 22% said they would accept tall buildings along the Ventura and Moorpark freeways--up from 13% five years ago.

The council will receive a report on the survey results Tuesday night.

Already, politicians have begun to scrutinize the figures to help them craft campaigns for the upcoming election.

“This is the bible, as far as I’m concerned, next to our General Plan,” Councilwoman Elois Zeanah said. “We have always put a lot of emphasis on citizen input, and we always say we’ll listen to (taxpayers’) voices.”

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Of course, those voices can be interpreted in many different ways.

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Zeanah seized on the results to support her longstanding call for tougher enforcement of all city laws, including architectural and design restrictions. Despite the undercurrent of discontent, a large majority of residents label the current laws “adequate” or even call for tougher rules. “That’s what’s telling,” Zeanah said.

She noted, for instance, the sizable percentage of people who consider clean air, natural ridgelines, public open space and a semi-rural feeling “very important.” In the past, Zeanah has cited similar results as justification for voting down developments.

But given the same data, others draw different conclusions.

Real estate broker Jack Dwyer said he believes the long recession has forced residents to re-evaluate the city’s mass of restrictive regulations. Gradually, he said, more people have decided to back the business community’s eternal plea for fewer rules and smaller government.

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Dwyer also attributed the increasing anti-restriction impulse to a surge of publicity about city ordinances.

In just the past year, Thousand Oaks residents learned about a rarely enforced law prohibiting them from parking in their own driveways. They heard a drawn-out debate about whether four unrelated adults should be allowed to rent a home together. And they listened to code enforcement officials declare a gas station’s display of American flags illegal.

“There’s a higher level of education about city processes,” Dwyer said. And the more people know, “the more questions they’re going to have. It’s a normal response, and it doesn’t surprise me at all.”

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Putting it more bluntly, Councilman Frank Schillo said: “I think people are perceiving local government as more intrusive. When you cross the sidewalk and start dictating what people should do on their private property, they get their backs up.”

Along with growing concern about regulations, the survey revealed a wide gap between taxpayers’ goals and politicians’ plans.

When respondents were asked what projects they would most willingly support with additional tax dollars, police substations ranked No. 1. But that idea has never even reached the council agenda.

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In contrast, a long-stated council goal--building a second public golf course--turned up at the very bottom of the taxpayer priority list. More people said they would support junior high school gymnasiums.

Similarly, the city’s drive to build a transportation center, to serve as a central dropping-off point for buses and taxis, came in 14th, halfway through the list of 27 projects. Survey respondents ranked an animal shelter and day care as more important.

In assessing the list, Schillo said he felt comfortable spending time working on lower-priority projects, like the golf course and transportation center, as long as he also concentrated on the taxpayers’ top goals.

“You have to work on a lot of things at once,” he said. “If you just work on the top 10 and disregard everything else, you’re in trouble.”

However council members adjust their goals, they can be sure of one thing: The public will be watching.

The attitude survey found that 55% of residents tune in to the televised council meetings at least occasionally, up from 47% five years ago. And more than 7% define themselves as hard-core viewers.


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