Thousand Oaks Approves Tract Near Wetland : Housing: Project for 87 homes gets the go-ahead, despite arguments warning of dire consequences for the environment.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite bitter community opposition and four hours of emotional testimony, Thousand Oaks council members early Wednesday approved an 87-home project near a Newbury Park wetland.

At 2:10 a.m., developer representative Ellen Michiel stood in the hallway outside council chambers and wept with joy, absolutely astounded that she had just received the go-ahead for the controversial project.

Before the hearing, Michiel had feared that tense election-year politics might swing votes against her, especially since a vocal group of residents has long protested the project on environmental grounds. Three council candidates spoke against the development, along with nearly two dozen neighbors.

But most council members approved the project as designed by Raznick Community Builders. Dubbed "Creekside," the tract near Reino Road and Knollwood Drive will consist of one- and two-story homes selling for $250,000 to $300,000 apiece, Michiel said.

Councilwomen Elois Zeanah and Jaime Zukowski voted against the project, arguing that the residential development would endanger the wetland and mar the quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods.

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Zeanah and Zukowski had succeeded in killing an earlier version of the project when Councilman Frank Schillo joined them in opposition because of concerns about protecting the vegetation-choked stream.

Yet on Wednesday, Schillo voted in favor of the development after professional consultants assured him that the project met local, state and federal standards for environmental protection.

Schillo also praised the developer for shaving the number of homes and enlarging some lots in a project redesign.

"I'm pleased," Schillo said before the early-morning vote. "They have come up with a better project."

Residents opposed to the project had raised a dozen concerns during the exhaustive hearing.

They argued that homes built near a wetland, on soil imported to level the lots, would be keenly susceptible to earthquake damage. They described the entire tract as a flood plain. They warned of disastrous damage to the wetlands. And they said the construction work would kick up enough dirt to put neighbors at risk of Valley Fever.

But both city analysts and outside experts rebutted those arguments.

And they vowed to stand by their conclusions. "If we're incorrect or we did something negligent or the tests are (shown to be) incorrect, we could be held financially responsible or we could lose our licenses," geotechnical consultant Vincent Carnegie said.

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In a final attempt to sway the council, foes of the project complained that the new lots will be smaller than those in surrounding streets.

Schillo, however, pointed out that the project actually contains fewer homes than anticipated under the city's General Plan. Before approving the development, the council had to down-zone the site to a lower density.

As for the most emotional issue--the health of the riparian habitat--several council members said they believe the wetland's condition will improve, not deteriorate, after the project is built.

Vandals now dump trash into the stream--everything from water heaters and beer bottles to rusty cars and old tires. Once the new Creekside residents move in, Fiore said, they might be more vigilant about keeping the wetland clean.

Casting her minority vote, Zukowski disagreed. "You are taking over habitat, intruding on a wetlands, and there is no way that can be mitigated," she said.

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