Green Countryside Becomes a Battleground : Zoning: Neighbors fear the clearing of a Somis citrus grove will lead to a crush of people if a developer is allowed to build on one-acre lots.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One by one the orange and lemon trees are disappearing, plowed over by bulldozers, then bunched together in large heaps for burning or shredding.

The Somis landowner says that because the soil is poor and unprofitable to farm, the 200-acre orchard is being cleared.

But the owner's real motive, neighbors say, is eventually to replace the trees with houses, a move they fear would push semi-rural Ventura County one step closer to becoming a concrete jungle like its neighbor to the south.

Indeed, for such homeowners as Clyde Pratt, the green countryside that for years has provided a peaceful setting in which to live and raise kids is quickly turning into a battleground over the county's future.

At issue is whether a British-based developer should be allowed to change the zoning on its agricultural land for building purposes. To allow this, Pratt and others say, would violate growth policies in place for a quarter century that call for keeping urban development in and around cities.

Worse yet, it would encourage developers to gobble up more of the county's dwindling farmland, they said.

"If this is allowed," Pratt said, "I firmly believe it will result in the destruction of Ventura County because there will be no justification for the county to maintain open space anywhere."

The development proposal has stirred protests from the county's 10 cities, prompting the county to put together a special committee to take another look at its development guidelines and zoning policies.

But the developer known as Knightsbridge Holdings says that residents and city officials are overstating the issue and maintains that its proposal to build 189 homes in no way conflicts with the county's development guidelines.

Those guidelines discourage urban development on farmland, but put no restrictions on "rural" development, said Knightsbridge consultant Dennis Hardgrave. Rural zoning allows for one residence per acre, which is what the developer is proposing, he said.

The project would be an extension of an existing community of 140 homes, Hardgrave said.

"This will not be precedent-setting," Hardgrave said. "This is a rural project, not an urban project."

The ensuing battle centers on varying interpretations of the county's Guidelines for Orderly Development--a set of rules held so sacrosanct by some local planners and activists that they refer to it by its acronym, GOD.

First adopted in 1969, the guidelines are a master plan intended to prevent the kind of urban sprawl that has paved over the once agriculturally rich San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys and stripped Orange County of the orchards it was named for.

And to a large extent, the guidelines, which simply state that urban development should take place within city boundaries, have been successful, said Bill Fulton, an urban-planning expert based in Ventura.

"They've done exactly what they were supposed to do and that is to channel suburban development into cities and to maintain separation between those cities," Fulton said. "If the guidelines had not been in place, this wouldn't have happened."

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The Knightsbridge proposal, however, promises to be a major test of the county's development policies.

Over the protests of homeowners, a majority of the Board of Supervisors voted in July to allow the developer to apply for a zoning change and to begin an environmental study of its proposed project. Supervisors Maggie Kildee and Susan Lacey voted against the request.

The Knightsbridge proposal may not technically violate the county's development guidelines, but it does infringe on the spirit of those policies, Kildee said.

"It might be rural, but I think of it as urban development because the people who live in these houses are going to expect urban services," she said.

As for the existing homes, Kildee said, they were built over a period of 30 or more years, and not in one fell swoop as Knightsbridge is proposing. To allow the development, she said, would overburden roads as well as fire, police and school services.

Knightsbridge, on the other hand, argues that the development will enhance services to the area and make them cheaper to deliver. Developer fees collected from the project, for example, could be used to improve the already heavily congested California 118 and California 34 junction, Hardgrave said.

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Without the development, the needed improvement may never be made, he said.

Yet many growers in the Las Posas Valley remain opposed to the Knightsbridge project because they believe it would encourage more development that could hurt their businesses, said Craig Underwood, whose family owns 400 acres of farmland nearby.

"This type of use doesn't belong out there," Underwood said. "No matter what you want to call it, it is urban when you plunk this kind of development down in the middle of agricultural land."

Supervisor Judy Mikels, whose district includes Somis, said she knows residents there are "out to lynch me" for supporting the Knightsbridge request. Nevertheless, she stands by her decision to grant the developer a hearing on its proposal.

"I believe in green hills," Mikels said. "But I also believe very strongly in property rights."

County supervisors are not the only ones struggling with the issue of property rights versus farmland preservation.

Voters in the city of Ventura will be asked Nov. 7 to approve two ballot measures designed to halt urban expansion into thousands of acres of farmland in and around the city for at least 35 years.

City Councilman Steve Bennett, a supporter of the measures, said they are necessary to ensure that his city does not become overrun with development.

"Without it, we're going to suffer from tremendous urban sprawl and the same fate as the San Fernando Valley and Orange County," he said.

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Growers say the ballot measures are ill-conceived and would unfairly rob them of their property rights. They are fighting back with their own campaign to oppose the initiatives, vowing to challenge them in court if approved.

"We're out there trying to protect our property rights, and they call us greedy," said Rex Laird, executive director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau.

If the Ventura initiatives are successful at restricting development on area farmland, then other cities are very likely to follow with similar measures, Laird said. In that case, he warned, the county can expect to see many more proposals like Knightsbridge's.

"Not only will there be more pressure to develop in the unincorporated areas, but developers will be able to make a much stronger case for it," he said.

Responding to complaints from local governments, county supervisors have agreed to form a task force made up of county and city officials to re-examine the Guidelines for Orderly Development and to consider possible changes. The group's first meeting is scheduled for Nov. 8.

One issue expected to be addressed by the task force is whether the county should change its definition of rural zoning.

Mikels said she is open to changing the requirements from one residence per acre to one house for every 2.5 acres or more, providing that all sides can agree.

"Maybe it makes sense now with dwindling agricultural lands and open spaces to go to 2 1/2 acres," she said. "I think we should take a look at that if in fact that's what everybody wants."

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But Fulton, the urban planner, said changing the zoning to require two- or three-acre lots would not make much difference as far as overall county growth, because that would still not be large enough to support a farming operation.

In this case, he said, what the county would end up with is more areas like the Santa Rosa Valley, which in recent years has seen much of its acreage nibbled away by million-dollar ranch homes and estates.

"What you have is low-density suburbs with people pretending that they're living in the country," he said.

Currently, the county has about 100,000 acres of irrigated farmland and is losing an estimated 1,000 acres a year to development, mostly within city boundaries, according to a study being conducted by the Agricultural Land Trust of Ventura County.

One central issue that the task force needs to tackle then, Fulton said, is whether the county's development guidelines are merely aimed at protecting farmland or preserving the agricultural economy of the county, which has annual crop receipts of more than $800 million.

"We're going to continue to grow," he said. "The question is are we going to become a bedroom suburb to the San Fernando Valley or are we going to have our own independent economy and identity?"

Even with the Guidelines for Orderly Development in place, the county has made several exceptions over the years to allow development on both agricultural land and in open space areas. It has approved the construction of farm worker housing near Fillmore, a new county jail outside Santa Paula and the massive Ahmanson Ranch housing project in the eastern portion of the county.

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More recently, state officials picked a 260-acre lemon orchard just west of Camarillo as the site for a four-year Cal State University campus.

But Kildee said all these projects have significant economic importance to the county and its future, especially the university. When finally built, the campus will not only fill an academic void but will also bring more jobs to the area, she said.

"We need the university more than anything else," Kildee said. "It's going to be there forever."

Meanwhile, Knightsbridge continues to remove orange and lemon trees from its orchard, an operation the developer says has to do with the poor quality of the soil and not its proposed project.

"It costs more to farm the land than it produces," Hardgrave said. "It has a shallow soil profile. There's clay 12 inches below the surface. You can make some improvements, but you can't change the long-term conditions of the soil."

Knightsbridge, which owns more than 1,200 acres of Somis land, has already planted another 200 acres of citrus trees on its property to replace the orchard being taken out of production, Hardgrave said. The new orchard, which has much richer soil, produces 800 field boxes of citrus per acre, more than twice the amount of the old parcel, he said.

But Somis residents question why Knightsbridge, which has owned the property since 1984, has only begun clearing the 200-acre tract in recent months. They say the move is intended to bolster the developer's case for building houses on the property.

"This isn't about a farming hardship," said longtime resident Patricia Arkin. "It's about money. It's about development."

Neighbor Pratt said that to approve the Knightsbridge project would be tantamount to giving the developer a monetary gift because the value of its land would skyrocket.

"They bought this property as agricultural land, they maintained it as agricultural land and now they're asking the supervisors for a gift that will give them millions of dollars," Pratt said.

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Hardgrave said this would not be the case because Knightsbridge would have to spend a substantial amount of money on developer fees, road improvements and other mitigation measures.

"This would not be a gift," he said.

Knightsbridge plans to bring a more detailed plan of its proposed project back to the county in three to four months, Hardgrave said. At that point, the developer will begin an environmental review of its project, which is expected to take another year and half to complete, he said.

Though they remain concerned about the project being approved, Pratt and other Somis residents said that Knightsbridge is not really the issue. The more important issue, they said, is whether the county will uphold principals that have helped distinguish it from other Southern California counties.

"Within our lifetime, we have watched pristine areas in Los Angeles and Orange counties become horrible places to live," Pratt said. "It's within our power to control the destiny of this county."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Knightsbridge Proposal

A developer, seeking to build 189 houses on a 195-acre lemon and orange grove it owns Somis, wants the county to change zoning from agriculture to rural.

Agriculture: 40-acre minimum per lot

Rural: 1-acre minimum per lot

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Development Guidelines

Ventura County's Guidelines for Orderly Development, adopted by the county and endorsed by its 10 cities, include two general policies:

* Urban development should occur, whenever and wherever practical, within incorporated cities which exist to provide a full range of municipal services and are responsible for urban land use planning.

* The county and its cities should strive to produce general plans, ordinances and policies, which will fulfill these guidelines.

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