A scaled-back version of Moorpark's beleaguered Hidden Creek Ranch project is shaping up to become the next major test of Ventura County's landmark growth-control laws.
Now called North Park Village, the project would contain half as many homes as the old plan and a long list of new amenities -- the centerpiece of which is a 60-acre man-made lake stocked with fish, lined with sailboat docks and flanked by upscale restaurants.
Plans also call for a 2,000-acre nature preserve, a 28-acre youth sports park, an amphitheater and a $20-million freeway interchange, along with 1,500 single-family houses.
Proponents hope the new package will sway a voting public that shot down city-approved development plans for the same 3,500 acres in a 1998 referendum. Also that year, residents overwhelmingly passed a Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources law, protecting the land from development without a public vote.
After that, the project was mired in lawsuits for years. As a result, Moorpark residents are in a strong bargaining position, Councilman Clint Harper said.
"If a developer wants to do something like this, there has to be tremendous public benefit or they don't stand a chance," Harper said. "They're going to have to have carrots for every constituent group in the community."
They will also have to follow the rules, he said.
In the case of North Park Village, the Newport Beach-based developer has agreed to shell out millions of dollars for environmental and traffic studies and weather the entire government approval process before putting the project on the ballot.
It wasn't always so accommodating, however.
Kim Kilkenny, vice president of Village Development -- which took over the project for Messenger Investment Co. two years ago -- said his company initially planned to send the proposal directly to voters by gathering signatures for an initiative.
But that approach met with resistance from city leaders and SOAR officials, who promised a political fight. SOAR leaders, including Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett, also promised not to oppose the project if the developer went through their preferred process.
Kilkenny admits that strategy is riskier, but said he is confident it was the right choice. And he isn't worried about the outcome.
"I think the public is a whole lot smarter than most people in the development community give them credit for," said Kilkenny, a former lobbyist with the Building Industry Assn. "I'll cast my fate to their judgment any day."
It's a significant departure from November ballot measures in Ventura and Santa Paula, which sought voter approval for thousands of homes prior to completion of required environmental, financial and traffic studies. Both failed in landslides.
Kilkenny's decision has won him praise in the community, even from those who don't typically dole it out to developers.
"They are doing it right," said Roseann Mikos, a slow-growth Moorpark councilwoman who coauthored that city's SOAR initiative.
And because voters under SOAR have yet to approve a residential development, the Moorpark project has the potential to write the rules for how large-scale housing projects are built in slow-growth Ventura County, said William Fulton, a Ventura-based regional planning expert.
"Developers still don't quite know how to operate under SOAR," he said. "This will be an interesting test case."
North Park Village was born out of a conversation Harper had with the owner of Messenger Investment Co. a couple of years after voters rejected the Hidden Creek project.
Harper, a chief opponent of the previous plan, said the developer asked him what kind of housing project he would build, if he had to build something on the sprawling property just north of Moorpark College.
Harper, a sailing buff, said he would design some upscale homes around a recreational lake, where people could swim, fish and take their boats out for a spin.
"Originally they said, 'No, we can't do it,' " Harper recalled. "But then they said, 'Some of the people involved think the lake is a really good concept.' "
A year or so later, Village Development came out with drawings that resemble Harper's vision. The lake, which would be owned by the homeowners in the development but open to all Moorpark residents, would be filled with drinking-quality water so it would be safe for swimming, Kilkenny said.
To offset the use of that water, Kilkenny said, the developer would build the plumbing necessary to use reclaimed water on all the landscaping throughout the community. Calleguas Municipal Water District officials have preliminarily approved the concept.
Kilkenny maintains that North Park Village is not simply a repackaged Hidden Creek Ranch, but a completely new community. One big difference, he pointed out, is that the development is much better designed to conform with the layout of the land -- a patchwork of scrub-covered mesas and canyons.
Still, some city officials say they suspect the new project will have some of the same hurdles as the old plan: traffic, environmental problems and the need for sufficient water.
"It appears they are attempting to respond to concerns raised by the old proposal, but what eventually comes to the council remains to be seen," Moorpark Mayor Pat Hunter said. "We lack details, and everyone has taken a wait-and-see approach."
City staffers are studying the proposal, with an environmental report due in February or March. Kilkenny said he will soon begin shopping the plan around to community groups.
If the project is approved by the Moorpark City Council this summer, it could go on the ballot as soon as November, he said.
"I think we are planning a really extraordinary community," Kilkenny said. "But at the end of the day, it's the public who will vote thumbs up or thumbs down."