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Grounds for Hope in Santa Paula

Times Staff Writer

Bruce Dickinson grew up herding cattle, riding horses and tending avocado and lemon orchards on the family’s Santa Clara Valley ranch.

The 1,285-acre Fagan Canyon property just north of Santa Paula has been in the Dickinson family for three generations. Dickinson, his father and grandfather have worked the land -- nestled in one of the last large farming valleys in coastal Southern California -- for six decades.

So it never occurred to Bruce Dickinson, 53, that he would one day sell the scenic hillside parcel. But that was before his three sons decided against a ranching life. And before development pressures began bearing down on Dickinson and his family.

As it turns out, the ranch lies within Santa Paula’s urban boundaries, making it the largest developable property in a tightly restricted growth area. The land is seen by many as key to the revitalization of a city that has struggled since the oil industry left town 35 years ago.

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So steep has been the fall that Santa Paula’s once vibrant downtown -- the picturesque stand-in for Main Street USA in many Hollywood movies -- has given way to empty shops and boarded-up storefronts. The local community hospital stands on the brink of financial collapse, and street gangs are largely responsible for a spike in crime.

With all this in mind, Dickinson, his mother, Patricia, and three sisters -- all of whom own an equal stake in the land -- sat down at the kitchen table five years ago and took a vote. It was unanimous to sell the property.

They agreed that selling the land would be good not only for the family but for the future of the city.

“We’re dying here,” Dickinson said. “It’s obvious to us as a family and as residents we’re dying. There’s been a no-growth attitude here since the ‘70s and ‘80s. You’re building yourself a problem if you don’t grow.”

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Dickinson’s family struck a deal with Dallas-based Centex Homes, which has agreed to buy the land if it receives approval to build up to 2,500 houses on 1,700 acres, including the ranch Dickinson’s late grandfather, Ralph Dickinson, bought in 1939. The developer recently spent $900,000 on an unusual seven-day community planning and design workshop with the aim of putting together an acceptable development proposal. John Franklin, a partner in the planned development, said Dickinson family members were particularly sensitive about who they wanted to work with and what type of project would be suitable for the community.

“They were very concerned about having it done the right way and took a lot of pain and time in deciding who was going to be the right developer,” Franklin said.

“They wanted to sell it to someone who was going to do the right thing. They know the family has a legacy in town.”

Leaders in the city of 29,000 residents agree that Fagan Canyon is crucial to revitalization. They are counting on the proposed project to serve as a catalyst for change as well as another source of revenue to help pay for basic services, including schools, roads and police.

But resident Mike Miller, who fought development of neighboring Adams Canyon two years ago, said he didn’t believe that Fagan Canyon would be the panacea others were counting upon.

“If a large part of the population feels some outward growth is valuable for increasing rooftops ... then I feel their argument is legitimate,” said Miller, who participated in the development workshops for Fagan Canyon.

“But you can’t look at outward growth to be the silver bullet. Much, much more needs to happen to have significant change. You have to stimulate investment in the town center. You have to focus on downtown,” Miller said.

Not only would Fagan Canyon be expected to generate more revenue for the city, officials said, the project would provide sorely needed housing for people of all incomes, giving current Santa Paula homeowners an opportunity to “buy up” and release older homes on the valley floor to first-time buyers. With only 9,000 single-family homes in the city, Fagan Canyon would increase Santa Paula’s housing stock by about 25% in 15 to 20 years when the development is completed.

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“We have a tremendous need for housing, and this project would contribute a significant amount of housing for different economic levels,” City Councilwoman Mary Ann Krause said. “We need people with buying power to stabilize our businesses, particularly the downtown. It’s one step in turning around the city. There are a number of strategic activities going on at this time, and this is a critical part of it.”

Although Dickinson’s family stands to make millions of dollars on the deal, he said a key factor in its decision was the strong belief that Santa Paula’s future largely depended on new development.

“If we kept the ranch, it wouldn’t be what’s best for the community,” he said. “I’ve watched this city die, little by little. This will allow something better to happen. If I’m sentimental about my attachment to the ranch, my attachment is much larger to my city, my community and the people that are here.”

The decision to sell was not easy. The tug of the land pulled hard. Dickinson raised his children on the ranch, the same as his father, Donald Dickinson, who died in 1991, and his grandfather. His sons, however, had no interest in the ranching business.

And when Ventura County voters in 1995 began approving strict growth-control laws that included areas around Santa Paula, Dickinson’s phone began ringing. Developers, real estate brokers and speculators wanted to know if the family was interested in selling.

“Twenty-five years ago I never conceived it would happen, not in my lifetime,” Dickinson said of putting his land up for sale.

“Five years ago it became apparent that this was one of the only expansion spots left in the city. I knew that if I was going to talk with any of these developers, I had to be prepared to sell.”

With his plaid work shirt and frayed Levis, the burly rancher seems to be as much a part of the family’s adobe ranch house as the fireplace mantel that is marked by California cattle brands.

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But Dickinson and his wife, Janice, plan to move out before Fagan Canyon construction begins, their destination still a question.

The couple’s only certainty is that they will continue to farm somewhere in the Santa Clara River Valley.

“Life will go on,” he said. “The canyon is not going to evaporate. My grandfather, who was a rancher and a businessman, always said, ‘You don’t own the land forever, you only rent it for a while.’ ”


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