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Park Takes Step Toward Official OK

December 22, 1988|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

It may not fit Henry David Thoreau's picture of the ideal natural setting, what with its ersatz tepee village, steam train, water slide and 300 recreational vehicle spaces.

But Ventura County planning officials say the 19th-Century theme park proposed for Happy Camp Canyon would provide the revenue at least to open the 3,700 acres of wilderness there, now behind a locked gate.

More than a year after Quor Inc. first proposed it, the Wild West fantasy camp was expected to take another step toward becoming a reality Wednesday afternoon with the county Parks and Harbor Commission's recommended approval of a lease option with the project's Encino-based developer.

4 Years

If the action is approved next month by the county Board of Supervisors, Quor would have 4 years to sign a lease on the planned $50-million to $60-million campground, tucked between Fillmore and Moorpark.

"This whole thing is being billed around the idea of what we like to call 'a campground for the rest of us,' " said William A. Norred, Quor's chief executive officer.

"It's designed to attract all the people who don't participate in outdoor overnight activities, either because they don't have the facilities, or the equipment, or the know-how, or maybe even the desire," he said.

To attract the recreation world's silent majority, Quor has proposed a complex of 700 acres that would feature simulated campsites of the 1800s, including Indian tepees, a mining village and a Cavalry camp. Each would have three classes of accommodations: canvas tents, insulated all-weather tents and well-appointed log cabins.

Adding to the turn-of-the-century theme would be a swimming hole with slides, caves and a hidden lagoon; an equestrian center with horse trails; a lake for fishing, and trained staff in period costumes.

No cars would be allowed inside the park, and visitors would be transported by steam trains and by canoes plying through a network of waterways.

The adjoining 3,000 acres of wilderness to the north would remain largely untouched, with only hiking and horse trails added.

Lease Payments

Lease payments on the land would probably bring the county $100,000 to $200,000 annually, money that could be used to help maintain the area, officials said. The canyon was closed in the early 1980s for lack of county maintenance funds.

"We haven't found anyone else doing exactly what we're doing," Norred said.

If it were up to any of the county's environmentalists, however, the park would look a bit more like Walden Pond.

"My biggest concern is that this not turn into some extremely intensive, super-duper development that's too close to its neighbors," said Roseann Mikos, a Moorpark resident who served on a citizens panel that studied the park.

Russ Baggerly, a leader of the Environmental Coalition, agreed.

"I think it's really sad that the only way we can get a new park these days is if it makes money," he said. "These huge developments transcend what recreation used to be: the family, a picnic table and grass."

Proposition 13

But county planning officials say recreation as it used to be went out in 1978, when Proposition 13 forced the Board of Supervisors to cut all support for public parks.

Now, to provide access to a recreational area such as Happy Canyon, enough revenue has to be generated to make the project self-sufficient, officials say.

"We stand alone as a small business would," said Blake Boyle, the county's recreation services manager. "And traditional county parks, even under the best circumstances, never pay for themselves."

To finance the proposed Camarillo Regional Park, for instance, county officials have also considered a theme approach that might begin with a 1950s-style entrance, a 1935-era truck stop, a 1920s-style festival area and a turn-of-the-century town square.

Quor predicts that Happy Camp's commercial elements, including a nominal admission charge, campground fees and sales of food and souvenirs, would generate $12 million to $14 million annually.

The estimated 350,000 to 450,000 annual visitors would be nearly triple the number who visit the Channel Islands National Park visitors center but far fewer than the 3.1 million who flocked to Six Flags Magic Mountain last year.

Major Hurdle

Despite some environmental concerns, the proposed campground has cleared a major hurdle: Although the land in Happy Camp Canyon is zoned as open space, the county's General Plan exempts county-initiated projects from such regulations.

Quor must develop an environmental impact report, and public hearings must be held on the project, but the company will not be required to seek a zoning change.

The speedy approval process contrasts with the county's reluctance to allow development on privately owned open space. That policy last summer derailed a plan by Farmont Corp. for an elite golf course and conference center on about 2,000 acres of open land near Ojai.

Boyle, who is also deputy director of the county's general services agency, said he doubts that the development of Happy Camp in an open-space zone will induce much growth.

"I don't see that happening at all," he said. "I see it adding to the enjoyment of a quiet life by providing a relaxed recreational experience."

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