After 21 years of planning and three years fighting lawsuits, construction is underway on the massive Dos Vientos Ranch project, where the first 20 of more than 2,000 homes should be ready for occupancy by the end of the year.
Courtly Homes Inc. and Operating Engineers Pension Trust Inc., the principal landowners, have already begun grading 712 parcels throughout the rolling hills and sprawling valleys of the 2,350-acre site in Newbury Park.
"I started working on the planning of this in 1976," said Chuck Cohen, Courtly Homes' Thousand Oaks-based attorney, sounding both relieved and elated. "As we speak, there hasn't been a house built there."
Los Angeles-based home builder Greystone Pacific purchased 445 lots for an undisclosed sum earlier this year from Courtly Homes, and earth-moving machines are grading that property.
The remaining 220 lots being graded by Pasadena-based Operating Engineers could be sold within three months, according to Ron Buss, the company's real estate advisor.
Unlike Courtly Homes, which will develop much of the land, Operating Engineers plans to sell all of its land to other companies that will build the houses.
Environmentalists hoping to stop the project were dealt a severe blow last week when the state Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by the Sierra Club, which sued in 1994 to block the project, but failed in two lower court rulings.
"We knew it would be denied," said Buss. "It had already been denied twice."
The Sierra Club's lawsuit claimed the project would violate CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) regulations by damaging habitat, creating smog, traffic problems and excessive noise. Project opponents said they weren't surprised by the judicial setback.
"I'm not surprised, given the political climate in California right now," said Michelle Koetke, chairwoman of Residents to Preserve Newbury Park. "There's a very obvious pro-developer slant in the state courts."
The Sierra Club kept its promise of dropping a second and very similar lawsuit filed against the city if the state courts did not rule in its favor on the first one.
But that hasn't stopped the complaints from Newbury Park residents. The latest episode involves a dynamite blast at 4:10 p.m. Monday that neighbors say shook their homes and blanketed portions of the neighborhood with dust.
"I thought it was a level nine or 10 earthquake," said Koetke. "I was holding on to the kitchen counter to stabilize myself so I wouldn't fall over. It was extremely loud. It scared me to death."
She called on developers to give residents advance warning prior to blasting.
Alice Gilliam, a neighbor of Koetke, said her 10-year-old son ran outside to investigate the blast and was covered with dust.
"His arms were just covered with this grit," she said.
Gilliam said she left a message with Courtly Homes, but has not received a call back. Thomas Dee, project manager for Pacific Greystone, which conducted the explosion to clear away rocks for the Via Las Brisas access road, said the complaints are exaggerated.
"It was a standard industry blast [and] it went precisely as planned," he said. "Dust went up in the air, but it dissipated."
Dee added that the nearest residence is always more than 1,200 feet away from where the dynamite is placed.
"We have always been a good neighbor over there," he said. "We're super sensitive to them. We try and minimize any impact to neighboring homes."
Dos Vientos--the largest residential project ever in Newbury Park, and the third-largest in the city's history--will be surrounded by two connecting roads that will form a loop: Rancho Dos Vientos and Via Las Brisas. Lynn Road fronts the property on the south side and Borchard Road will serve as the main artery road running through the development.
Courtly Homes is developing 660 acres on the east end of the range; Operating Engineers owns 1,690 acres on the west side.
Because Operating Engineers plans to sell only estate-size lots, it will grade only 975, compared to 1,375 by Courtly Homes.
Courtly Homes will sell houses ranging from the low $200,000 to the high $300,000 range, according to Arlen Miller, a managing partner of the firm.
The first three model homes should be ready in September, with three more completed shortly afterward.
Miller said he expects as many as 20 homes to be ready for occupancy by the end of the year.
On the other side of the project, Buss predicts seven model homes will be complete by November, and the first 35 homes may be ready for occupancy early next year.
Though Courtly Homes plans to grade lots in five sizes, Operating Engineers will have only two options: 12,000 and 23,000 square feet.
The single-family homes will cost about $450,000 to $550,000, Buss said. Homes on the larger lots will be 3,600 to 4,400 square feet, costing about $600,000 to $725,000, he said.
With an average annual family income in Thousand Oaks of about $80,000, Miller said he expects Dos Vientos Ranch to attract a lot of attention.
The firms jointly own a 20-acre parcel on which there will eventually be a 350-unit affordable housing project--part of the overall plan--but Buss said its construction will probably not begin for another four years.
Most Dos Vientos buyers will be first-time homeowners or those who already live within five miles of Thousand Oaks and are looking for a larger home to accommodate a growing family, Miller said.
"You don't have a tremendous amount of commuters [working] in L.A. who live on the outer [west] edge of Thousand Oaks," he said.
However, with such a large number of homes to sell or rent, he said Dos Vientos Ranch will not reach capacity for another decade.
The project was approved by the City Council in 1988.
For environmentalists and some Newbury Park residents, it has been a continuous nightmare.
Despite the recent court defeats, project opponents have not given up the fight.
A third lawsuit filed by Los Angeles-based Save Open Space/Santa Monica Mountains is expected to begin in September in Ventura Superior Court, according to Woodland Hills attorney Rosemary Woodlock.
SOS is challenging the council's approval of Courtly Homes' plans, which opponents said paves the way for greater density than local ordinances allow.
"It's a terrible precedent in terms of overcrowding," Koetke said. "Density is the enemy. That's what we're fighting in this town. In a year we're going to look like Oxnard."
Koetke's organization raised more than $10,000 to cover the Sierra Club's legal fees alone.
"We did the fund-raising here to show there was community support," she said.
Miller, however, remains undeterred.
"[The project's] not only a go," he said. "It's already been going."