Eager to preserve their predominantly rural community, nearly 200 Santa Paula residents packed a City Council meeting this week to oppose possible development of 500 acres of prime agricultural land.
A study being performed by STA of Newport Beach will help decide the future of the privately owned land that lies to the west of city boundaries.
"Every citizen of Santa Paula knows and recognizes that the essence and core of Santa Paula's quality as a community is its environmental character and every citizen who has any pride in the community points proudly to the beauty and bounty of our agriculture," said lifetime resident Tom Beach, who owns citrus and avocado groves on the city's east side.
"A proposal to condemn 500 prime acres to a housing development is a gut punch to the environmental character of the town," he said.
Orange County developer Harry Tancredi, president of Circle T Corp. in Santa Ana, provided the City Council with a $187,000 interest-free loan for the land study in October.
The deal worried some residents because Tancredi is interested in building between 120 and 150 upscale houses in the section.
But Mayor Les Maland, who at one point threatened to clear the room, reminded Monday night's crowd that the city is under no obligation to annex the land or to permit development.
His words did little to mollify the crowd.
Jim Proctor, a spokesman for the recently created Citizens for Responsible Development, called on the council to cancel its contract with STA.
He also claimed that the City Council had not adequately informed residents about Santa Paula's plans for growth.
Councilwoman Kay Wilson responded that citizen concern was being expressed too late and said residents could have learned of the plans by reading the paper.
The crowd greeted her comments with a resounding chorus of boos.
Another public hearing on the plan is scheduled for Feb. 27.