Father-and-Son Developers Are Stuck in Mire of Wetlands Issue : Newbury Park: They have endured a long battle to build houses on environmentally sensitive property. They hope a newly elected City Council will support them in December.
With papers piled high on his desk, and dozens of tract maps and aerial photographs propped against the walls, developer Albert Cohen puffed feverishly on a cigarette.
Nothing has gone as planned.
After years of negotiations, a brush with bankruptcy, three lawsuits and countless public hearings, Cohen and his father, Nedjatollah Cohan, are further from their dream of developing the 45 acres of Newbury Park grassland than when it was purchased 16 years ago.
Last week, the Thousand Oaks City Council postponed a vote that could have doomed their plans to build 98 houses on the property and finally turn a profit. With the council set to take up the matter in December, the developers hope that time and a newly elected council will be on their side.
After more than a decade of fighting, even opponents of the housing project agree that Cohen, who changed the spelling of his last name, and his father have become casualties of a changing political climate in Thousand Oaks.
Ned Cohan has faced opposition from increasingly powerful homeowners and anti-development forces. He has battled financially strapped government agencies that imposed on him a host of costly restrictions.
And his construction plans have collided with a growing push to preserve environmentally sensitive wetlands--which, to his dismay, were discovered on his land.
In the eyes of a loyal son, Cohen said, it appears that everyone is working against his father.
“Basically, it’s like Ned Cohan has been running this race and, every time he gets close, the council steps in and moves the finish line,” said Chuck Cohen, no relation, a Thousand Oaks attorney who briefly represented Cohan. “Now, even if he does get there, the question is whether there will be any practical gain left for him to enjoy.”
In December, 1977, Cohan paid $2 million for 85 acres of land west of Reino Road between Lynn Road and Kimber Drive (he later sold half the land to another developer). At the time, Albert Cohen said, the parcel was considered the jewel of Newbury Park.
City plans for the land called for hundreds of homes and the area’s only major shopping center. Cohan even turned down the chance to buy a condominium complex in West Los Angeles--which he says would be worth $20 million today--to invest in this fast-growing town.
Two years after he bought the land, he eagerly began planning the construction of 138 homes and a shopping center.
“Everything seemed perfect,” Albert Cohen said. “We were even ahead of schedule.”
Then came the news that two of the area’s major flood channels cut right through the property. For years, the county had been eyeing his land as the perfect spot for a flood control basin--a giant ditch that would help protect homes downstream from washing away in the rare event of a flash flood.
For approval to build, Cohen said the county told his father that he would need to make $4 million in improvements to his property, including construction of a flood control basin.
For four years, Cohan and his two sons negotiated with the county, but they could not reach an agreement. As the clock ticked, Cohan’s money began to run out.
“I had to sell everything to keep us afloat,” said Albert Cohen, 33. “I sold my car, my (auto import) business. I was living off a friend’s credit card just to get Ned out of bankruptcy.”
Even after Cohan thought that he had resolved his dispute with the Ventura County Flood Control District, getting permission to build houses was a complicated process.
In 1989, Cohan offered to cut in half the portion of land that he would devote to commercial development. And in 1992, after twice being rejected by the city, the Planning Commission tentatively approved his project.
“At that point, it should have been approved,” Chuck Cohen said. “But by then, there was strong pressure on the council from residents of Newbury Park.”
About 200 protesters mobbed a pivotal City Council meeting in July, 1992. They carried petitions signed by more than 800 Newbury Park residents. Cohan’s development, they argued, would trample wetlands, and increase traffic, noise and air pollution in their quiet neighborhood.
As the council members prepared to vote after seven hours of tense debate, 65-year-old Cohan, who had come so close to gaining approval, collapsed to the floor and began to sob.
Apparently, he knew what was coming. The council rejected his project--four votes to one. A majority of the council argued that Cohan was trying to squeeze too many houses onto the property.
“Since then, he hasn’t been the same,” said Larry Marquart, one of eight city planners who has, at one time or another, been in charge of the Cohan project. “He comes in depressed, sad. I think we could all see the stress building for a long time.”
Marquart said city planners who have worked with Cohan are sympathetic to his plight. But, he said, efforts to limit the number of houses to be built on the property just mirror what is happening elsewhere in Newbury Park.
There has been a pattern established in that area, Marquart said, in which large developments have shrunk as the city’s vision for that area has become more clear.
The nearby Dos Vientos development went from initial proposals of more than 4,000 units to about 2,000, Marquart said. Two other nearby projects, which could have brought almost 2,000 more homes into the area, were both scrapped, and the land was preserved as open space.
Council member Elois Zeanah, one of those who voted against Cohan’s development, said her opinion was shaped by the public’s cry to preserve the city’s remaining wetlands.
“I feel badly that Mr. Cohan didn’t understand that when he bought the parcel that encumbrances existed upon it,” Zeanah said. “But we have to base our views on what is appropriate for that area.”
Zeanah said she envisions a less-dense development on the land--one that would keep homes away from the wetland areas on the property. She stressed that commercial development should be out of the question.
Albert Cohen said that proposal, which the council will take up in December, is unacceptable.
“That’s just a joke,” he said, poring over one of several hydrology studies that he had done to combat the city. “This land is not a wetland. It’s a few shrubs. Nothing lives on that land. Right now, it’s nothing more than a dump.”
His lone supporter on the council in recent years has been Mayor Alex Fiore, who said he believes that Cohan has done everything that could be asked of him.
“If he’s in compliance with everything, even if there are 100 people in the audience screaming against him, I don’t see how we can say no,” Fiore said. “To me, that’s just wrong.”
In December, the council will vote on a city zoning proposal that would eliminate any commercial development on the Cohan property and sharply limit the number of homes.
By then, Fiore will have stepped down from the council and Cohan will have to face newly elected council members.
No matter how the vote goes, Albert Cohen can’t say with any certainty that he will ever see houses on his land.
“This has really hurt my family and my father,” he said, noting his father has poured his lifelong savings into the property.
“It’s amazing,” he said, taking a long drag on his cigarette. “My father put 50 years of his life in that land and, with the swing of a vote, it could all disappear.”