Calling it one of the most community-sensitive developments in the town's history, the City Council voted early Wednesday to annex 743 acres from the county and zone a small portion of it for the proposed Woodridge luxury home development.
The 3-2 vote came after a last-minute design change that eliminated four homes from the project, bringing its number to 252. The developers consolidated several lots on the far eastern end of the project and agreed to build a high berm with extensive landscaping to protect the woody vistas enjoyed by residents of Simi Valley's Wood Ranch development.
The approval came after more than five hours of serious and often argumentative discussion on the supposed merits and potential pitfalls of the project, which originally included plans to build 339 luxury homes.
"In the 12 years I have worked for the city I don't remember ever seeing this kind of dedication of open space," said Mayor Judy Lazar.
Some detractors, such as Councilwoman Elois Zeanah, regard the project and its cumulative impacts on the city's growth as more substantial than acknowledged in the city's environmental report and analyses from independent consultants.
Before voting against the project, Zeanah said the 83-acre housing development will choke surrounding thoroughfares--including the Moorpark Freeway and Erbes Road--with additional traffic, burden an already overcrowded Conejo Valley school system, block wildlife corridors, encroach on existing open space and virtually link Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley.
"My No. 1 reason for voting to deny this project is the open space value of the property," Zeanah said. "What this will do is shrink our open space buffer from miles to just a few feet."
However, city staff and the council majority criticized Zeanah's reasoning as being based on misinformation.
According to city studies, the increased traffic generated by the Woodridge development should not be great enough to pose a serious impact on surrounding streets. The Moorpark Freeway, which currently lacks the capacity to handle its daily flow of traffic, is scheduled to be enlarged by Caltrans beginning in 2004 and will be able to accommodate any increased traffic.
Conejo Valley Unified School District Supt. Jerry Gross also addressed the council to say that both he and the school board were satisfied with the project's mitigation efforts. Woodridge's Los Angeles-based developer, Michael Rosenfeld, has agreed to pay more than $1.8 million to the school district to offset the additional enrollment anticipated once the project is complete.
Paul Edelman, senior biologist for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, who made an extensive study of the project's effect on the area's wildlife, concluded that because a vast majority of the land would remain undeveloped, any impacts on wildlife would be insignificant.
Although the project would be built very close to Simi Valley, the developer and city officials said the donation of the more 600 acres to the city as permanent open space will actually do more to protect city buffers.
According to the city's General Plan, 288 acres of the property could be developed. But the developer will only build on 83 acres, donating the rest to the city as open space.
Additionally, Rosenfeld said the donated land would join other undeveloped preserves such as the Lang Ranch, Simi Hills and North Ranch open spaces, thereby completing the city's halo of buffers.
An issue that has dogged the development from the beginning was the perception that it would link the city to Simi Valley. But Rosenfeld and City Planner Greg Smith said the project design and the designated open space have virtually eliminated that possibility.
"That simply cannot happen," Smith said Wednesday. "It's beyond all reason and probability."
Councilwoman Linda Parks, who also voted against the project, said she based her decision not only on her long-standing support of open space buffers, but also what she considers a clear violation of city ridgeline protection standards.
According to city regulations, developments cannot "silhouette" or block the view of area ridges and must be built at least 100 feet away from the crest and 300 feet away from the base of all ridgelines.
As designed, the Woodridge project will be built much closer to the ridgelines than those regulations allow. City staff who helped plan the project said that because the property was on county land, and was therefore not subject to city regulations, those standards weren't applied.
Smith insisted that the spirit of the ridgeline protection codes will be realized.
He said all ridgelines will be protected and that the project will be largely invisible from surrounding neighborhoods and major roadways. Additionally, the Woodridge project has been redesigned to eliminate any landslide and geological threats.
Since its inception more than two years ago, the Woodridge project has been revised five times, paring the number of homes about 26% to 252.
As planned, the housing development will be built on the property's eastern end. The homes, which are expected to sell for between $400,000 and $600,000, will be built on lots ranging from 7,000 square feet to half an acre.
The overall property, a 743-acre crescent of land northeast of the city, was formerly zoned by the county as reserved open space. However, Thousand Oaks laid claim to the land in its 1970 General Plan, which designated the parcel as being within its sphere of influence and appropriate for the development of as many as 637 homes.
For Woodridge developers, the council's decision concluded a long and sometimes difficult planning process. But Rosenfeld said he feels the time was well spent.
"I think we've really struck a balance between man and the environment and that's what the planning process is for," he said. "We worked very hard to address the concerns of both the city and its residents and I feel this project certainly reflects that."
However, there are many who fear that Rosenfeld may be planning to sell the property to other developers, who may not be as accommodating.
Residents Dan del Campo and Joy Meade said they worry that now that Rosenfeld, who paid about $2 million for the property, has achieved his goal of zoning the land for development, he will "flip" or sell it to another developer.
While there is nothing prohibiting Rosenfeld from doing that, the developer said he has every intention of seeing the project through.
"That has been my goal from the very beginning," he said. "I want to see homes there."
Although the project has received approval from the city, the request for annexing the land must go before the county's Local Agency Formation Commission for final approval. The agency has indicated it won't challenge the request.
Rosenfeld said he plans to break ground next spring with the community's first residents expected to begin moving in by the end of the year.