Taking Its Toll : THE 118: Some Resent Creeping Urbanization Along East-West Route

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The old road changed course by a few hundred feet, and the tiny town of Saticoy began to die.

At the other end of Ventura County, some lanes were added to the same road and Simi Valley and Moorpark blossomed into bedroom communities.

On the crowded two-lane stretch in between, the throwback farming town of Somis is standing firm.

All along California 118, there is a fateful struggle taking place between the new and the old--sprawling suburbs versus small farm towns--that is a microcosm of Ventura County.

Not surprisingly, the old ways are giving way.

"This area kind of grew like Topsy," said 81-year-old Jack Fulkerson, whose family opened Fulkerson Hardware in Somis in 1912.

"We're getting more and more people living around here, and most of them work in Los Angeles. At 6 o'clock in the morning, you start to hear the cars going east on the 118."

California 118, also known as Los Angeles Avenue through Moorpark, traverses what remains of the county's agricultural heartland before becoming the six-lane superhighway that travels through Simi Valley to San Fernando.

Once a bustling stagecoach route that linked Ventura with Los Angeles, the road has become a popular detour for truckers looking to avoid the scales and safety inspections on the Ventura Freeway atop the Conejo Grade.

Pricey subdivisions are slowly springing up along California 118 where walnut groves and lemon orchards once stood, and the antiquated road has become notorious for traffic jams and deadly collisions.

From 1990 to 1995, there were 2,431 traffic accidents on the Ventura County section of California 118, according to the California Highway Patrol.

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Thirty-three people died in crashes along the county's 32-mile stretch of the road during that time--including 10 last year. Trucks played a role in 12 of the 33 deaths, according to the CHP.

Caltrans plans to expand the 16-mile section of California 118 between Saticoy and Moorpark into a four-lane road, but the $75-million project is not scheduled to begin until 2016.

"The demand for the 118 has exceeded capacity," said Luu Nguyen, chief Caltrans engineer for Ventura County. "But there are worse problems to deal with. The widening of the 118 will probably wait."

In the meantime, Nguyen said, a move is afoot to require drivers on California 118 to use their headlights during the day to improve safety.

Robert Grether, 72, remembers a time when much of the traffic along Los Angeles Avenue did not even have headlights--or horns or motors.

The president of the Grether Farming Co.--which owns 2,500 acres of lemon, orange and avocado orchards--grew up near the intersection of Walnut Avenue and California 118 between Saticoy and Somis. For him and other farm family children, the fertile Las Posas Valley was a vast playground.

"I went to the Center School [on Los Angeles Avenue near Camarillo] by horse and by bicycle," Grether said. "There was no fear of traffic. Now I'm afraid of getting out on that road in my pickup."

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Few people seem to enjoy driving California 118, still largely a picturesque stretch of fruit stands and nurseries and verdant fields--though today's stands mostly carry produce grown outside Ventura County.

Even truck drivers may lose their appetite for California 118 now that there is a polar bear on the loose around Moorpark.

CHP Officer Dave Webb is a trucker's worst nightmare: a "polar bear," or special patrolman whose job consists of stalking truck drivers and busting as many of them as possible.

There are several dozen polar bears throughout California, and the mere mention of their moniker, derived from the white patrol cars they drive, elicits fear and contempt on the citizens band airwaves.

"They know why I'm out here," Webb boasted, standing beside his car near his favorite preying spot at highways 118 and 23 in Moorpark. "They know I'm going to get them eventually."

Webb claims to be a popular man in Moorpark, which received a polar bear after complaining for years about a deluge of truck traffic. He inspects about 100 trucks a month, he said, and usually finds something wrong with 90 of them.

Jeffrey Seibold found that out the hard way one recent morning. Driving his semi through Moorpark with a load of frozen cakes, he spotted the polar bear in his rear-view mirror and coasted slowly toward a red light.

But Webb spotted him as well, and suspected what the coasting meant: The truck's left brake light was out.

"I knew he was going to pull me over," said Seibold, a skinny man with a scraggly beard who was wearing a cowboy hat fashioned from rattlesnake hide. "I just knew he was."

Webb let him off with a written warning to fix the light within 30 days or face fines, and a reminder to take the Ventura Freeway.

Before noon that morning, Webb stopped more than half a dozen trucks, hauling one off the street immediately for having an expired registration.

The CHP has opened a portable scale and safety-check center on California 118 near Moorpark to monitor the truck traffic. However, though the facility is open most days, it is usually closed at night, and hundreds of truck drivers still test their luck with the polar bear on California 118.

From their home in Moorpark about 100 yards off Los Angeles Avenue, Rick and Alicia O'Dea said the never-ending rattle from passing trucks has become unbearable. California 118 turns into a bottle-necked mess near their neighborhood, where the westbound lanes dwindle from two to one.

"We've seen so many accidents," Alicia O'Dea said. "They haven't done much of anything to make that road safer. What is it going to take?"

Like many of their neighbors, the O'Deas came to Ventura County from the San Fernando Valley, enticed by the good schools for their three daughters and the lazy, laid-back pace.

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Moorpark has exceeded their expectations, they said. But they are concerned that the Ventura County they moved to--and therefore contributed to reshaping--may be growing too fast. At 28,000 residents and counting, Moorpark is the county's fastest-growing city.

Rick O'Dea complained that the city's leaders recently allowed a developer to build a strip mall near the Arroyo West Elementary School.

"If they continue making decisions like that," O'Dea said, "this place probably will turn into the Valley before long."

California 118 and Los Angeles Avenue part ways in Moorpark, near the juncture of highways 118 and 23. The 118 is immediately transformed into the Ronald Reagan Freeway, a modern 26-mile highway that whizzes through the heart of Simi Valley before crossing the Santa Susana Pass into Los Angeles County.

The rugged Santa Susana Pass is, in many ways, the reason that the California 118 exists today. In the mid-1800s, before a primitive path was carved through the Conejo Grade, the Santa Susana Pass was the only obstacle between Ventura and Los Angeles on one of the era's most popular stagecoach routes.

It was one treacherous obstacle, however.

"The original stagecoach road over the Santa Susanas was the nearest thing to an escalator without power that has ever been constructed," wrote Charles Outland, the late Ventura County historian, in his book, "Stagecoaching on El Camino Real."

Holdups were common along the narrow path, as outlaws such as Tiburcio Vasquez, described by some historians as a Wild West version of Robin Hood, hid among the boulders and plundered the hapless stagecoaches.

Part of the main commercial path between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Ventura County section of the route was aptly named Los Angeles Avenue. It was designated a county highway in 1868.

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A hundred years later, the Simi Valley Freeway was built through the Santa Susana Pass, finally providing smooth access between the Simi and San Fernando valleys--and ushering in an era of booming growth.

In 1960, the population of Simi Valley was 2,107, according to the U.S. Census. By 1980, it was 77,500, and it is now estimated at 104,000.

Renamed for President Reagan last year, the freeway was completed in 1983. The section connecting it with California 23 in Moorpark opened 10 years later.

As the farmland along Los Angeles Avenue continues to disappear, some longtime businesses have had to adapt to survive. When homes began to outnumber walnut groves in the San Fernando Valley in 1959, the Resnik family moved its shelling factory to Somis, a village west of Moorpark along California 118.

Back then, Somis still sat firmly in the heart of 50,000 acres of walnut country. And the Somis Nut House, as the landmark business is known, once processed and sold walnuts to big national companies such as Fischer Nuts.

Today, the Somis Nut House buys from the San Joaquin Valley, not Ventura County, where only a few thousand acres of walnut groves remain.

The factory's mammoth metal machinery grinds just enough walnuts for its gift shop--a business booming with all the new residents around the Las Posas and Santa Rosa valleys, said 58-year-old Steve Resnik, who runs the outfit with his mother, Annette.

"Our little area in Somis has been agricultural forever," he said. "But the rest of Los Angeles Avenue has changed a lot."

Somis residents enjoy a long history of fighting off development--most famously in 1969, when they derailed the proposal to build Amberton, a planned city of 35,000 people that would have virtually surrounded their tiny unincorporated community.

However, even in Somis, the forces of urbanization are creeping forward. Adrienne Peers Nater moved there in 1966 to raise horses on a small ranch. Back then, traffic on California 118 was a trickle of farm trucks and occasional cars.

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Though her neighborhood off Balcom Canyon Road has changed little, Peers Nater said, California 118 has been transformed into a snarling traffic nightmare by the cars and trucks rushing to get to Moorpark and beyond.

"I don't like what's happening in Moorpark," said Peers Nater, a member of Citizens for a Safe Highway 118, a new group of residents that is fed up with the road's traffic problems.

"I think it's irresponsible when they don't consider the impact on us. Widening the roads in Moorpark doesn't help in Somis. Traffic goes east and west."

With the traffic comes the prospect of development. Many longtime Somis residents are particularly concerned that one proposal--Knightsbridge Holdings' plan to build up to 189 houses on a 200-acre former lemon and orange orchard near California 118--will lead to a barrage of homogenized stucco houses and make traffic worse. If county leaders say yes to this developer, some old-timers reason, it will be harder for them to say no to the next.

"They need more lanes [on California 118], that's for sure," said Fulkerson, long regarded as the unofficial mayor of Somis. "But more subdivisions aren't going to help with anything."

West of Somis, California 118 passes Saticoy and travels about a half-mile farther before reaching California 126. Los Angeles Avenue splits off and comes to an abrupt dead end in Saticoy, near a street corner that was bustling for much of this century but is quiet today.

Saticoy was once the main depot for Ventura County farmers looking to send their produce to the big city by rail. The town's walnut and lima bean packinghouses also made it a top destination for growers, and Los Angeles Avenue was the best way to get there. The intersection of Violeta Street and Los Angeles Avenue was the heart of Saticoy, which may have been best known for its welcome sign: "Drive Slow, See Our Town. Drive Fast, See Our Jail."

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But as the county's agricultural industry began to fade, Saticoy became a less prominent hub for local farmers.

Then even California 118 outgrew Saticoy. The dogleg stretch of the highway that cut through the town--and thereby kept it alive--had become a traffic nuisance for drivers.

In 1992, after 10 years of study, Caltrans began work on a $22-million project to reroute California 118 around Saticoy and to widen the rickety bridge spanning the Santa Clara River. The construction, finished last year, ran through several longtime Saticoy businesses, demolishing a few buildings and forcing some merchants onto smaller plots of land.

A Saticoy business--R & H Paving--won the Caltrans contract to widen the bridge. But the business had to move out of Saticoy to make way for the highway.

Yet despite the obvious changes, there was optimism in the little town, which has a population of less than 2,000. In fact, many merchants thought that the rerouting of California 118 would clear the way for a downtown renaissance in what they were beginning to call "Old Town Saticoy."

Frank Ybarra, the owner of Ybarra's Tire on Violeta Street, was among the optimists. When the new four-lane bridge was finished, he helped organize a colorful midmorning parade to mark the dawn of the new Saticoy. The event, which featured classic cars, an old steam engine and Chumash rituals, attracted more than 3,000 spectators.

But when the hype died down, the truth became clear: Without California 118, Saticoy was dead. The fruit stands and curio shops and antique stores that once made up the heart of downtown Saticoy are now almost all gone.

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Even Ybarra, secretary of the Saticoy Historical Society, said he plans to relocate several blocks away from the heart of downtown Saticoy to be closer to the freeway.

"The climate here is pathetic," he said. "Merchants are either on the verge of going under or diligently working to relocate.

"There's no doubt that something needed to be done [to ease traffic]," he added. "But there are people here who've devoted their lives to these stores, and Caltrans just yanked the carpet out from underneath them."

John Yeto, the owner of Yeto's Market down the block from Ybarra's Tire, still sees a reason for hope. Yeto, 61, opened his store 35 years ago. It is not the only Yeto's Market in Saticoy history: His father owned a similar business before being sent to a Japanese internment camp during World War II.

Saticoy will change, Yeto believes, but it will survive--thanks to a large housing development planned for some nearby farmland.

"That highway out there's no good to us anymore," he said. "But that [subdivision] might help this town. That might bring people back."

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ABOUT THIS SERIES

"On the Road: Journeys Along Ventura County's Highways" has been a five-part series profiling some of the most heavily traveled thoroughfares in the county. On previous Sundays, the focus has been on the Ventura Freeway, California 126, California 23 and California 33. Today's installment--the last in the series--features California 118, which spans the county's midsection and embodies the shift from an agrarian past to a future of suburbs and strip malls.

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