These days, cement-mixers barrel down 2-lane roads in the Santa Rosa Valley almost as frequently as the flatbeds that for years have carted hay to the area's horse set.
The trucks are not the only signs of transition in this 24-square-mile valley wedged between Moorpark and Thousand Oaks and isolated from the rest of Los Angeles County by a series of hills.
Where avocado and citrus groves recently stood, wooden skeletons of half-built homes sprout. They are a far cry from garden-variety condos or tracts, however; these are custom homes built on minimum 1-acre lots where "absolute low-end" means $450,000 and 2.5-acre spreads with pools can top $1 million, according to Santa Rosa Valley real estate agent Jack Chiurazzi.
Most Santa Rosa Valley residents don't mind that their property values are growing faster than a crop of lettuce after a spring rain.
From their ridgeline homes, they have watched Moorpark, Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley gobble up land and disgorge suburban sprawl. And since those cities have now slapped limitations on future growth, they worry about the builders who are turning a hungry eye to their hidden valley.
The project that has valley residents most concerned is a proposal by the family of actor Joel McCrea to build a 250-unit housing development, a small commercial center with a "village" theme and a tourist trolley line that would close a portion of Moorpark Road.
The McCreas' property lies just inside the city boundaries of Thousand Oaks, and the project would adjoin homes in the Santa Rosa Valley.
The trolley would require the closing of Moorpark Road at the Norwegian Grade, an incline reportedly named after the Norwegian farmers who settled there last century that is the main thoroughfare for Santa Rosa residents traveling to Thousand Oaks to work or shop. (There is not so much as a convenience store or coffee shop in the exclusively residential Santa Rosa Valley).
"The Conejo Valley is 7 minutes away from us. If they close it, it will take us another 10 minutes to get to Simi or Moorpark," said Fred Meyers, head of the Santa Rosa Homeowners Assn. and leader of the opposition to closing Moorpark Road.
Meyers has enlisted neighbors to write letters to Conejo Valley merchants warning that they will lose business if Santa Rosa residents are denied access to the grade.
Ventura County Supervisor James R. Dougherty, who represents the Santa Rosa Valley, also opposes the proposal.
"It would put a great burden on people for health and safety, hospitals, commutes to work or grocery stores," said Dougherty aide Brian Miller, who noted that the longer drives would add to air pollution.
However, Peter McCrea, who is handling the development for the family, says closure of the road at the Norwegian Grade might be a boon for local residents. "It's a very dangerous road," he said.
He also said inconvenience would be minimal. "Depending on where you're going," he said, "it will be a 2 1/2-minute to a 5-minute detour."
Larry Marquart, Thousand Oaks senior planner, said the city is conducting an environmental impact report to study the proposal and will hold public hearings in several months to collect comments from local residents.
Meanwhile, Santa Rosa's 1,078 residents are girding for their own environmental impact report, one that will address the valley's future and decide development patterns for years to come.
The Ventura County Board of Supervisors expanded a study this week that will look at rezoning parts of the valley to allow for a greater concentration of houses.
Already in the works are proposals that could boost population in the Santa Rosa Valley by 25% by allowing some property owners to build one house per acre. Zoning in many parts of the valley is more restrictive, and many farmers cannot build more than one house per 10 acres or one house per 40 acres.
Dougherty said the proposals do not violate county guidelines regarding preservation of open space because the Santa Rosa Valley is already a checkerboard of small farms and 1-acre homes. Although the county prefers that growth take place within cities, it has no plans to allow the valley to be annexed to either Moorpark or Thousand Oaks, Dougherty said.
It appears that there is little opposition to increasing the density of homes in the valley.
"This is the lesser of two evils," Meyers said, adding that the homeowners' association supports one-house, 1-acre zoning.
"Even though I'd prefer the farmlands, my philosophy is that if it gets to 1-acre custom homes, it's going to stay that way. If you leave the land as agricultural fields, the cities can annex it and develop housing tracts."
The problem that has arisen over the years is that luxury custom homes have sprung up around the farms that remain. This has caused friction between farmers trying to reap profits on their plots and residential neighbors who do not like agricultural smells, spraying of pesticides and equipment noise.
"We've had some complaints," Miller said.