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Councilman Pivotal Vote on Huge Housing Project

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With the City Council deadlocked over Hidden Creek Ranch, the fate of the proposed mammoth housing project--and, in effect, the city’s future--appears to be up to one man: John Wozniak.

The councilman emerged Wednesday night as a surprise opponent of the project, joining Mayor Patrick Hunter in a 2-2 vote that prevented approval of the developer’s plan. Hidden Creek, eight years in the planning, would include 3,221 homes on 4,300 acres that would be annexed to the city, increasing its population by one-third.

Pressured during the meeting by council colleagues who support the project, Wozniak said Thursday he will give Irvine-based developer Messenger Investment Co. a chance to persuade him to change his mind before the council considers the matter again July 15.

“If he [the developer] comes back and he is able to allay 90% of my concerns, you know, we could have a project,” said Wozniak, who based his vote Wednesday on concerns over the amount of grading and dust the construction would create.

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Wozniak, however, does not plan to tell the developer exactly what would satisfy him. He said it may mean reducing the number of homes or the amount of grading, but would not elaborate.

“That’s up to them,” Wozniak said. “I don’t build land or develop land. They’re the ones that will play with the numbers.”

Hidden Creek, proposed eight years ago, calls for construction of housing for about 10,000 people on a parcel north of town. The project also would generate more than $20 million to help fund construction of a bypass to take traffic off New Los Angeles Avenue.

The stage was set for the deadlock--which leaves the project in limbo--by the abstention of Councilwoman Debbie Teasley, a local real estate broker who withdrew from the vote to avoid a conflict of interest.

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Hunter, who opposes Hidden Creek because of many concerns over environmental effects, said he has no plans to change his vote against the project. Councilmen Chris Evans and Bernardo Perez, who voted in favor, say their minds also are made up.

“I have cast my vote and let my conscience be my guide and I will continue to cast my vote in that fashion,” Evans said.

The only council member who appeared to waver was Wozniak, who on Wednesday expressed his views against the project for the first time, surprising his colleagues.

Evans said he knew Wozniak had expressed some concerns about grading, but said, “I didn’t think that they were as deeply rooted as it appeared last evening.”

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Both Evans and Perez pushed hard during the meeting to persuade Wozniak to reconsider. Wozniak then talked to the developer after the meeting and has now agreed to meet with company representatives to determine whether anything can be done to get him to change his mind over the next two weeks.

But Wozniak also said he may suggest that the decision on the development be postponed until November. That is when residents are set to vote on several ballot measures to limit growth.

Among those measures are two that would restrict development outside city limits: One would allow Hidden Creek, and another would require its approval by voters.

“Maybe it wouldn’t be bad to wait,” Wozniak said.

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In the meantime, Evans criticized project opponents for earlier raising questions on Teasley’s potential conflict of interest and thereby creating the possibility of a deadlock. Those questions led to a letter from the state Fair Political Practices Commission suggesting she should abstain from voting on the project.

“This is exactly what you get when you have a small minority of people who take a City Council member out of the vote for no good reason,” Evans said.

Project opponents also have questioned whether Perez has a conflict of interest because his wife is a Moorpark real estate agent. But he rejected those questions and voted on the project Wednesday.


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