Homes Sprouting, Farms Dying

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Trees snapped and lemons rained down as Phil Kruse's bulldozer churned through yet another orchard.

"There's nothing to it!" Kruse shouted above the din. "It's amazing how fast you can knock something down. I can do 2,400 trees a day--easy!"

An affable Ventura County native, Kruse, 35, has knocked down his share of trees in 15 years of clearing old farms to make way for new suburbs.

Outraged seniors once screamed at him as he cleared the way for a strip mall. But no protesters taunted him today; most of the people tied to this peaceful patch of land have vanished long before.

Even if he could have scanned the old lemon grove for its phantoms, Kruse had no way of knowing about Erastus C. Nichols, a wandering Canadian who came to Ventura in the 1880s and ended up with a citrus fortune. Or Roy Helton, a hired hand who raised six kids in the rundown farmhouse that would soon be leveled.

And no matter how hard Kruse might have squinted, he wouldn't have been able to make out the others who would soon arrive--people like the Januskas, who had dreamed for so long of a new home, and the Silveys, who planned to bless their house by inscribing Bible verses on its unpainted walls.

All Kruse could see were the subdivisions already crowding in on two sides of this neighborhood-to-be and the busy shopping center across the street.

It's an old story in Southern California, the paving of farmland. It's also a continuing story. Every year, dozens of subdivisions sprout on recently productive land as farmers sell out. In 1998, nearly 40,000 homes went up in the region, the most since the early 1990s.

Even in Ventura County, where voters overwhelmingly approved one of the nation's toughest anti-growth laws in November, more than 60,000 homes may still be built in the next two decades. Many will rise on little patches of earth with long histories, like the acreage on Telegraph Road where Kruse's blade scraped away soil and ripped out lemon trees.

Like the other vanishing pockets of land in Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, this 50 acres was much more than dirt and trees.

It has been the setting of a long-running saga that has featured farmers, politicians, builders, neighbors, even the thousands who motored by and believed for a moment that they lived in the country. Kruse is just one more character in the unfolding drama.

When he was a kid, Phil Kruse would visit relatives near this orchard. All he could see then was citrus, an ocean of green without end. But now, as little as he relished laying waste to trees, he had a job to do. With angry finches swooping down to peck away at the roof of his cab, Kruse wistfully delivered what could be an epitaph for Southern California's disappearing farmland.

"This place, its time has come."

A Special Piece of Land

Unlike millions of other new Californians who came west, Erastus C. Nichols wasn't looking for gold or oil or stardom--just a respite from the woolen mill he ran with his brother-in-law in frigid Ontario, Canada.

He arrived during the booming 1880s, and within a few years got the big break he needed. A young engineer who suddenly had to leave the tiny Ventura County farm town of Fillmore for a business opportunity gave his friend Nichols a shot at running the Sespe Land and Water Co.

The engineer, William Mulholland, would go on to become the legendary head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Nichols, meanwhile, enjoyed the great good fortune of running a water company in a thirsty region during a time of drought.

When he died in 1930 at the age of 76, he left behind a small fortune in land--including 50 acres of walnut trees he had bought just two years before on bucolic Telegraph Road.

He also left his son, Ernie, then a premed student at Pomona College, a clear final wish: "You have to take care of the ranch."

Dropping out of college, Ernie Nichols did just that for six decades. He stuck with it through the Depression, when the property lost more than two-thirds of its value. He stuck with it through an up-and-down market for walnuts, finally replacing them with more profitable lemon trees in 1950.

For Nichols, it was a very special piece of land.

"A half-mile either way, and stuff would freeze," he recalled. "But it set up on a little rise and we'd get a downdraft that would just chase the frost away."

Over the years, Nichols saw the value of farmland soar as high as $35,000 an acre. He also saw his land engulfed by the city. He had only to look at the smoke from his neighbors' barbecues to tell which way the winds blew.

Roy Helton saw it too.

Ernie Nichols' hired hand for most of his life, Helton and his family moved to the Nichols farm in 1960. That was when the orchard next door was carved into a subdivision called Ventura East. Later on, the orchards across Telegraph Road met the same end.

"It was a real mess," Helton said. "People would throw their trash over the fence and into the orchard. The kids would come in and pick the lemons off the trees."

Nichols once was sued by a trespasser who fell from one of his trees and burned himself on an electric line. Nichols sprayed his fields by hand, not by crop-dusting helicopter, yet just carrying out the basics of farming had become a constant fight with his new neighbors.

He couldn't beat them in the long run, he figured. By the mid-1990s, he realized it was time to join them.

"Hated like hell to give up that ranch," Nichols said. "But there's only one thing that's compatible with subdivisions--and that's another subdivision."

Since 1984, about 10% of Southern California's remaining farmland has been transformed into subdivisions. The region still has 958,000 acres devoted to crops, but they are heavily concentrated in the Inland Empire. In Orange County, the namesake fruit tree blossomed on 65,000 acres at the end of World War II. Today, orange trees occupy less than 200 acres.

The process of turning farms into suburbs remains fundamentally the same: Developer comes calling. Farmer decides to cash in. Neighbors scream. Developers throw them a bone. Politicians pay tribute to controlled growth, then end up voting for just one more exception.

But some important parts of the process have changed. Developers are using new techniques to negotiate with neighbors angry about the impending destruction of the orchard next door. And those neighbors are shrewder about the political process and how to use it.

When Sandy Smith, chairman of the Ventura Planning Commission, gazed upon the seething crowd at a commission meeting one March night in 1996, he felt awful.

More than 100 angry residents of east Ventura had converged, and many trooped to the microphone with the same impassioned points. The proposal for 228 houses by an Orange County-based division of Beazer Homes would cost the city something precious and gain it nothing good. Rush-hour traffic and crowded schools would just get worse.

Secretly, Smith felt they were right.

"I hated it, [so did] the rest of the commission," said Smith, now a Ventura city councilman. "It was the standard-baloney housing project."

Goliath Wounded--but Not Mortally

Meanwhile, word got to Smith from members of the City Council: This subdivision had languished on paper too long. It was time to get it built.

Yet Smith knew that the plans called for no trees to shade the streets. The landscape was dominated by garage doors. The traffic pattern struck Smith as something lifted from the how-not-to examples in planning texts. On top of all that, there were the angry neighbors.

In the face of it all, the Planning Commission did the unexpected: It rejected the subdivision. As the crowd cheered, it seemed to many that, for once, Goliath was mortally wounded, or at least chased back to his office in Orange County. The system had worked.

But the jubilation was short-lived. Just a month later, the commission granted Beazer Homes' request for a second chance. Had it not done so, the plan would have been forwarded straight to the City Council--which, Smith later explained, would have approved it immediately.

To the neighborhood's dismay, the company was invited to redesign the project. A graduate in humanistic psychology from Sonoma State University, Smith made the quintessentially Californian suggestion that Beazer hire a "facilitator" to negotiate with the steaming neighbors.

"I nearly got lynched," said John Cahill, the facilitator selected by Beazer Homes. "Their attitude was: 'Why are you here? We killed this thing! It's dead! Who are you to come in here and plan something with such an effect on our community?' "

Executives at Beazer Homes, which had bought an option on Nichols' property in 1994, were also upset.

Gerald Gates, the president of Beazer Homes Southern California, was a man who rhapsodized about his job like a hero in a Frank Capra movie.

"Without trying to sound trite, I love to build communities," he said. "It's a heck of a good feeling going back and seeing kids riding up and down the sidewalk, seeing mature trees where I'd planted sticks in the ground."

Beazer Homes, based in Atlanta, had built subdivisions across the country. Yet company officials were flustered by the anti-growth mood they encountered in Ventura. Until that raucous meeting of the Planning Commission, their plan had passed every bureaucratic checkpoint. So what did these people want?

Over the next year, they were to find out.

With architect David Sargent of Civitas, a Ventura urban planning firm, Cahill formed a committee that guided the project's redesign. It included city officials, a Beazer executive and two neighborhood residents who had led the opposition.

Cahill weighed the neighbors' basic premise: Nichols' land has been an orchard forever, and an orchard it should stay.

"Instead of just saying it will be developed--like it or not--we researched the possibility of maintaining it as agricultural," he said.

Most of Nichols' lemon trees, it turned out, were old and unproductive, and would soon be uprooted. Strawberry fields were more profitable--but they came with clouds of dust and the specter of poisonous methyl bromide. With his neighbors in mind, Nichols had for years resisted switching to berries, but a subsequent farmer might not.

"The idea of strawberries disturbed me a lot," said Matt Capritto, one of the neighbors on the committee.

Despite some stormy meetings, the two sides came closer.

The neighbors came to realize that the land would be developed, regardless of their attachment to the trees. The real issue was how much control they would have to shape whatever came next.

At the same time, Beazer agreed that the neighbors who urged a more attractive subdivision might be on to something--a community with a "neo-traditional" feel of front porches, recessed garages and lots of trees might be more expensive but also more salable.

The company's market research bore that out. In addition to a need for housing among young families looking to move up, there was a demand from "move-down" and "empty-nest" buyers. Affluent, older people wanted space for a home office or a library or visits from their grown children.

In the end, Beazer cut the number of homes at what was to be known as Rancho del Mar by 30, to 198. The houses closest to Ventura East would be just one story. That way, residents of the older subdivision would not feel hemmed in by houses looming over their backyards.

Beazer also added hundreds of trees. As for the schools, the company donated 50% more money for schools than the law requires in developers' fees.

"Beazer realized you can't develop in Southern California like Sherman marching through Georgia," Cahill said.

On June 17, 1997--16 months after Beazer's initial plans had been scuttled--the Planning Commission approved homes on land that would be stripped of crops for the first time in a century.

Only one neighbor spoke against it.

Making a Subdivision a Neighborhood

Lori and Bryan Silvey were tired, anxious, excited.

They had awaited this day for more than a year. Twenty-one houses yet to be built would go up for sale at prices ranging from $230,000 to $300,000. Three days earlier, the Silveys had staked out the No. 3 position in line. Now they were about to write a $10,000 check as earnest money for their new home.

"It's a big deal," said Silvey, a chemist for a Newbury Park pharmaceutical company. "This is the place we'll live until the boys are through college."

When the Silveys heard about the Rancho del Mar development, they sold their east Ventura home and rented an apartment for nearly a year. What they wanted was a more active neighborhood, a place teeming with potential pals for their 10- and 12-year-old sons. What they didn't want was the burden of selling a house at the very time a new one came available.

For months, they pictured the holiday dinners they would hold in their new dining room. They dropped by almost daily as the models were being framed.

These were houses of the '90s designed for couples with children from previous marriages, and with room for "surprise babies." The children's bedrooms are placed as far as possible from the master bedroom, which comes with an adjoining nook for a den, a sewing room--or a nursery.

Front porches were included to encourage neighborliness. Garages were recessed or turned sideways from the street.

To the three dozen people who had lined up for the first shot to put their money down, the concept needed no reinforcing. They had started arriving three days before, each parking an RV or pickup with a quickly scrawled number proclaiming its owner's place in line. Some spent the nights there.

Carrie Burquez (No. 23) and Lily Januska (No. 24) lived in the same townhouse complex in Carpinteria. Until they queued up for new homes at this place 20 miles down the coast, they had not met.

Sure, an older house might be less expensive, they agreed. But there was something fresh and exciting about everyone moving in around the same time, making new friends, transforming a subdivision into a neighborhood.

"It might sound silly," Burquez said, "but I don't want a house where someone may have passed away. In a new house, the history starts with you."

The Silveys already were planning a ritual to mark the beginning of their new history.

Devout Christians, they would inscribe Bible verses on the walls before the painters got to them.

Lori Silvey already had one selected, from Romans 8:28.

"And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God."

The Families Move In

Last December, five months after opening day, 29 families were living in new homes on Erastus C. Nichols' old ranch.

The Silveys didn't get to do their Bible-verse ritual because the walls had been painted by the time they moved in. But they found that their house and neighbors were just what they wanted.

Lily and Jeff Januska's home, however, wasn't finished until five weeks after its scheduled completion. Because they had already enrolled their daughter at a Ventura high school, Lily had to spend hours driving her to school and swim practice from their apartment in Carpinteria.

Once they moved in, the Januskas were plagued with leaky faucets, uneven windows--small problems that amounted to major frustrations when taken together.

"There was a point we were ready to either picket or get a lawyer or put up a for-sale sign," Lily Januska said.

Prospects were sunnier after they complained directly to Beazer's home office, but six weeks after moving in, Lily Januska still had the feeling that her life was on hold.

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 families had expressed interest in the remaining houses, which wouldn't be done for at least a year.

"There's far more demand than Beazer could ever supply," said salesman Bill Stevenson, whose father-in-law used to haul lemons from Nichols' ranch to the packing house.

Ernie Nichols had been busy too. He had bought a ranch in Ventura County's Las Posas Valley, far from any development. He tottered up hills there, supervised workers installing a drainage line, shored up a sagging barn with redwood beams he scavenged from his old place.

In late November, chest pains sent him to the hospital. He died Dec. 1.

The obituary recalled him as "a man of integrity and a true individualist," but it didn't mention the old lemon orchard in Ventura that was starting a new life as a neighborhood.

"He loved that old ranch," said his son, Ron Nichols, a rancher himself. "He said it couldn't be duplicated."

Times staff writer Shelby Grad contributed to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

From Dirt to Development

On the eve of World War II, the Southern California landscape was dotted with farms--some 37,000 of them. Today there are fewer than 5,900, as plots like the one purchased by Erastus C. Nichols in Ventura are transformed into shopping centers and subdivisions.

NUMBER OF FARMS

*--*

1940 '64 '97 Los Angeles 12,475 2,800 498 Orange 6,109 1,542 172 Riverside 4,572 2,652 1,340 San Bernardino 6,110 2,656 684 San Diego 5,814 4,212 2,205 Ventura 1,745 1,507 1,030 Total So. Cal. Farms 36,825 15,369 5,900

*--*

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SO. CALIF. POPULATION

At the beginning of each decade. Figures are in millions

'40s: 3.5

'50s: 5.5

'60s: 8.8

'70s: 11.3

'80s: 13.4

'90s: 14.6

NOTE: All figures are for six-county Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura area

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Stopping Urban Sprawl

Ventura County voters recently enacted a revolutionary set of land use controls to preserve the region's rapidly disappearing open space and farmland. The measures, sponsored by SOAR (Save Open Areas and Agricultural Resources) are based on similar efforts in Napa County. An overview of the new laws:

Measure B (Countywide SOAR initiative)

Issue: Requires Board of Supervisors to obtain voter approval before rezoning farmland and open space in unincorporated areas.

Percent of vote: 62.6%

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Municipal SOAR initiatives

Issue: Cities must obtain voter approval to expand beyond designated boundaries. Voters in five of the county's largest cities approved the initiatives. Only in Santa Paula did the measure fail, with 34% of the vote. Ventura voters enacted a similar law in 1995.

Impact: The new laws strip politicians of the authority to rezone certain properties and transfer it to the people. The laws will also leave intact buffer zones of open space, agricultural lands, parks and watershed areas between cities, helping each to maintain its separate identity.

Sources: Times reports, SOAR

Janice Jones Dodds / Los Angeles Times

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