County, state and federal officials are upset over a Simi Valley developer's bulldozing of 80 acres of pristine canyon land with out acquiring the permits necessary to develop it.
Owners of the Big Sky Ranch contend that the grading, which leveled hills 30 feet high, was done for agricultural purposes. No permits are required for such work.
"We've been farming in that area for years and we thought we'd grade so we could plant more crops . . . I don't think we've violated any laws," said Big Sky President Glen Gessford. He expressed surprise that the grading has drawn such concern.
But officials from the California Department of Fish and Game, the Ventura County Public Works Department and the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, say they are not convinced that the work was motivated by agricultural concerns.
"I can't imagine too many farmers doing what they've done," said Ron Brazill, deputy director of the county's public works agency.
The Department of Fish and Game plans to ask the Ventura County district attorney's office this week to determine whether charges can be filed against the developer for allegedly blocking the dry Tripas Canyon Creek without a permit, according to Lt. Al Matthews, the department's field supervisor for Ventura County.
During the rainy season, water in the creekbed flows into Tapo Canyon Creek, home of the unarmored three-spined stickleback, a rare and endangered fish, said Matthews.
He said the bulldozing has blocked the creek at three locations, and eroded the soil, causing a "severe sedimentation problem."
Gessford says he merely filled in a dusty ravine.
"I can't understand how filling in a dry barranca could be a criminal charge," he said. "There's no water there, there's no fish."
Officials with the Public Works Department said the grading violates the hillside erosion ordinance. The department has ordered the developer to come up with a mitigation plan.
Big Sky Ranch is a 10,000-acre property owned by a partnership that includes Watt Industries, one of California's biggest real estate developers. The owners want to build a 2,080-unit housing development and a small shopping center on about 3,000 of those acres and have applied to the city of Simi Valley for the necessary zoning changes.
Even before a final hearing on that application has been scheduled, Big Sky's owners have graded part of the land earmarked in plans for residences and planted much of it with safflower, whose seeds yield the popular cooking oil.
But the state's Matthews said soil samples indicate that much of the planted earth consisted of decomposed sandstone from the graded hillsides. Such earth is "absolutely counterproductive to any agricultural use," he said.
Don Louviere, an official of the U.S. Soil Conservation District, estimated that only 30% of the safflower crop will be good enough to harvest, although Big Sky officials dispute that. Some plants already have fallen victim to ero sion; others, planted in unfertile soil, are shrunken, yellowed, 2-inch specimens.
But county officials say the safflower crop prevents them from taking action against the developer for the illegal grading they say they suspect. If roads or obvious housing sites had been carved into the land, it might be a different story, they said.
"Unless we can prove that they're lying, there's nothing we can do," Brazill said.
sh Mitigate 'Scars'
The grading, which took place in November, flattened hills, cut a 30-foot-wide path through another ridgeline and caused topsoil to erode, according to Louviere.
Louviere said Watt Industries will be required to unblock the waterway, install terraces, build sediment retention basins and plant additional vegetation to combat erosion and mitigate the hillside "scars."
Jerry Hovell, an engineer working with Watt Industries at the site, said wind and rain caused the erosion, not grading. He termed the problem minimal.
The matter first came to the attention of county officials in February when Simi jogger John Etter contacted them about the grading.
Etter, who has run along the canyon paths for 10 years, said he is concerned that Big Sky is gouging the hills prior to obtaining approval for its development.
sh Unincorporated Land
The ranch is on unincorporated county land north of the city of Simi Valley between Sand and Tapo canyons. Major development there will require annexation by the city, which then must approve or reject the development proposal.
Clyde Evans, an assistant city planning director, said that Simi "is very much interested in quality development" and that Watt Industries' proposal is being given serious consideration.
Recently, the city's Planning Commission scaled down Watt's 2,080-home proposal by about 450 units. Evans said the project has met with some neighborhood criticism, but that "there haven't been hordes of people showing up at Planning Commission meetings to oppose this."
But Etter, who has spent dozens of hours compiling information about the proposal, says he will oppose the project to the end.
"This area cannot take the additional traffic and air pollution. If we can get enough people together, maybe we can stop this. We have to try."