Builder Vows Work on Long-Promised Park About to Start

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

House hunting with twin toddlers and a 4-year-old last year, April Thomas remembers the relief that she and her husband felt when they saw a sign promising a park near a new tract home they loved.

That was in March, and the sales agent said construction would begin in a month. But construction still hadn't started in May, when they moved in. And it hasn't yet.

In fact, the first phase of the public park was supposed to be open by the time the Rancho Conejo Village project reached 1,000 residents, which occurred in the fall of 1995, according to homeowner association estimates. Now, if construction starts by spring, the play field will open two years late.

"That's the joke. When [the twins are] in college, it'll probably be done," Thomas said.

But the residents at Rancho Conejo Village aren't laughing.

The 12.7-acre park, planned at Ventu Park Road and Camino Dos Rios near Shapell Industries' 1,452-unit development, is the first of several in Thousand Oaks scheduled to be built by developers.

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Shapell officials say the park took extra time to plan because they wanted to get residents' input, but that work is ready to begin.

In the past, developers have either donated land or money to help build parks. But strapped for cash, Conejo Recreation and Park District officials convinced their counterparts at City Hall to force developers to build the parks themselves.

Another city-mandated park is anticipated at the Dos Vientos project in Newbury Park, and the developer of Lang Ranch in Thousand Oaks has volunteered to build one.

In the case of Rancho Conejo, residents are looking to the city to enforce the conditions placed on Shapell as part of a plan that was approved by the City Council in 1988.

"A developer who doesn't comply with a specific plan could be subjected to serious sanctions, which could include holding future building permits, until the conditions of the plan are complied with," said Michael Ireland, a disgruntled homeowner and attorney who usually represents developers.

But city planners say the park is really a park district project, and until park officials complain, they are not going to do much about it.

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"We have been assured by the CRPD that they are very, very close to getting the park built," said John Prescott, planning division manager for Thousand Oaks.

And park planner Tom Sorensen says he is concerned about the delay but has seen enough movement from the developer not to press the issue.

Even so, the subject of the much-delayed park did come up at a recent Shapell hearing before the City Council. In November, the developer asked to rezone an industrial area to allow for apartment buildings.

The council said yes, but required that the park be completed before any apartments are built.

Frank Faye, Rancho Conejo project manager for Shapell, said there were many small details to be ironed out before the park could be built, but that all was settled as of this week.

"I'm waiting to get a grading permit from the city," he said. "We have the contractors on board. We're ready to go."

Residents say they have heard that one before. In November, Faye told homeowners at an association board meeting that construction would begin in a week.

"I just don't trust them, and it gives me a bad feeling about the community I wish I didn't have," Thomas said.

Letting developers build parks is a perfectly reasonable way to forge a park system, said Peter Detwiler, a consultant with the state Senate Housing and Land Use Committee. After all, that is how most streets and sidewalks--also public uses--are constructed these days.

When a delay occurs, "it's a political question," Detwiler said.

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Sorensen, the park district's planner, acknowledges that there are some inherent differences between a park district and a developer.

"Our mission is to provide the best recreational facilities for the public, and their mission is to spend the least amount of money on those recreational facilities," he said.

Sorensen expects the park to cost between $600,000 and $700,000.

The politics are such that the president of the Rancho Conejo Village Community Assn. declined to discuss the matter.

With two Shapell representatives sitting on the homeowners board, Nora Grabar, president of the board, said she preferred to work with them than publicly lambaste them.

The delays started early: Although the park should have been opened by the fall of 1995, Sorensen said a specific design was not submitted by the developer until that summer.

After working with a homeowners committee and jumping through bureaucratic hoops, Shapell obtained approval of the park--the first phase of which is to include two lighted tennis courts, a lighted basketball court, grass, picnic benches, a tot lot and a parking lot--in January 1996.

Faye said the delays were caused by a predictably slow process, as well as time taken to meet with homeowners to ensure that the park meets everyone's expectations.

"The extra time was spent for the benefit of our homeowners and our community," he said.

Faye also said he doesn't believe that Shapell is 1 1/2 years late. He said the condition requiring the park to be built by a certain date was waived to accommodate the extra time needed to meet with homeowners.

Sorensen said the condition wasn't formally waived, but has been overlooked because the developer has made consistent, if not speedy, progress.

Although the weather conditions of late have been too wet to allow grading to begin, Ireland securely fixes the blame on Shapell.

"If a contractor is two years late on a project of this size, I would attribute it only to gross mismanagement. Because the only other reason is intentional delay."

Meanwhile, older children are playing ball in the streets, while the younger ones, such as Thomas' brood, are driven to other, far-off parks.

Underscoring the long wait was Linda Rothchild, whose family bought into the tract early.

"My child was 4 when we moved in," she said. "Now he's going to be 8."

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