Their zest in protecting oak trees and stream beds from developers has earned Agoura Hills officials the reputation of being steadfast environmentalists.
But a dispute over responsibility for a creek that meanders through the city's most affluent residential neighborhood has converted those officials into hard-nosed pragmatists.
City Council members say insurance liability problems could force them to pave a scenic stream bed that has been carefully preserved as a 43-acre neighborhood greenbelt.
Officials contend that Medea Creek is too quaint to qualify as a flood-control channel--but too dangerous to be used as a public park.
The quiet stream, lined with oak trees, is an unlikely setting for controversy.
Springing from Simi Peak in Ventura County, it drains Agoura's largest valley, meandering alongside Kanan Road for eight miles before emptying into Los Angeles County's Malibu Lake.
Along the way, it runs through five residential neighborhoods, and the various developers have dealt with the creek in different ways.
At its headwaters, builders of the 2,000-home Oak Park subdivision have kept the stream bed natural and turned its overgrown banks over to the Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District. Parks officials maintain walking paths alongside the stream.
Closer to the Ventura Freeway, developers of several small residential tracts have channelized the creek with concrete storm drains. There, the stream is fenced and overseen by the Los Angeles County Flood Control District, which keeps its gates locked.
In between, at the 845-acre, 1,160-lot Morrison Ranch Estates tract, builders have taken a middle ground.
Morrison Ranch developers have gently graded the stream's banks and planted grass along a one-mile strip to control runoff and create the winding greenbelt. A discreet concrete gutter along the creek's bottom prevents erosion from normal daily flows.
City Gets Deed
As a condition of the tract's approval in 1977, the stream bed was deeded to Los Angeles County to eventually become parkland. That deed reverted to Agoura Hills after it incorporated in late 1982.
For the past four years, however, the Morrison Ranch Homeowners Assn. voluntarily has taken care of lawn mowing and irrigation of the creekside greenbelt at a cost of $100,000 a year. But the homeowners have grown tired of picking up the tab and asked Agoura Hills to handle the maintenance, as it does at other city parks.
Officials told the homeowners this week to forget that idea.
"How can you intermingle a park with a flood-control area?" asked Councilman Ernest Dynda. "To me, it just doesn't make sense for it to be a park."
Using a flood channel as parkland where there would be more visitors to get hurt--through a fall or drowning, for instance--would probably jeopardize the city's already shaky liability insurance coverage, Dynda said.
In any event, said Paul Williams, city planning director, the greenbelt has little potential as a public park. "Rather, these improvements are . . . an expansion of the manicured yards of the adjacent lots," he said.
City Manager Michael W. Huse reported that the stream's grassy banks and narrow concrete gutter do not qualify as a flood-control channel, either.
"The channel improvements were never designed to standards imposed by the Los Angeles County Flood Control District," he said. "The improvements currently in place will never be accepted by the district for maintenance purposes."
City Atty. Gregory Stepanicich said the landscaping and gutter were never approved by either the city or the county.
"Clearly, an option the city has is to demand that these improvements be removed. They were illegally constructed on public land," Stepanicich said.
If the city issues such a demand, the creek would either have to be boxed in with concrete to meet flood-control standards or be returned to its previous natural state--which also meets flood-control standards.
Neither of those ideas is very appealing to Morrison Ranch residents, who have paid an average of $350,000 each for their homes, which were built on each side of the creek.
Angelo Cici, president of the homeowners association, said a concrete-sided storm drain would cost $3 million to $4 million. He said that would translate to an assessment of more than $3,000 per homeowner if residents were stuck with the bill.
On the other hand, if the stream bed were allowed to return to its weed-choked, pre-development condition, homeowners' property values would sink. "Our only recourse would be through litigation" against the city, Cici said.
Although such a natural look has proved popular in the next-door Oak Park area, it has not won universal support from residents there, homeowner Kate Tanner said.
Tanner said her family moved from Oak Park to a home next to Morrison Ranch's manicured greenbelt three weeks ago, partly because of her new neighborhood's neat appearance.