In the laissez-faire 1980s, the Santa Clarita Valley was a developer's paradise, where a real estate boom doubled the population to 158,000 by the decade's end.
The 1990s, however, will be far from paradise for the valley's developers.
Los Angeles County's regional planning commissioners say the previous decade's unbridled growth has stretched public services in the valley to the limit and must be checked.
The County Board of Supervisors must decide whether to heed the commissioners' call to reject 25,500 proposed houses, apartments and condominiums--enough dwellings to serve a city the size of Carson. The board is tentatively scheduled to make that decision Thursday.
Dave Vannatta, a planning deputy to Supervisor Mike Antonovich, pledged that the supervisor is "not going to gut or make wholesale changes to what regional planning is doing." Builders have long considered Antonovich an ally and have contributed heavily to his campaigns.
But even if the supervisors relax the commission's tough recommendations, it is clear that the rules of the development game have drastically changed in the Santa Clarita Valley, builders, county officials and slow-growth activists say.
With the county declaring that growth has limits, builders in the valley are, for the first time, competing with one another for shrinking slices of the development pie. Developers, as if atoning for earlier excesses, are offering to provide extra roads, parks, fire stations and other public improvements to get their projects approved.
"It's now a competition," Vannatta said.
"It sort of pits everybody against each other," a builder complained.
Supt. J. Michael McGrath of the Newhall School District said: "I think it scares the hell out of developers."
Developers who once showed no interest in building schools to house spiraling student enrollments are offering to help districts with cash and land for new campuses.
"It is not business as usual," McGrath said. "We refer to it--I think they do, too--as a beauty contest. They are very carefully trying to be just a little more generous."
The Dale Poe Development Co., builder of the Stevenson Ranch project, has offered the Newhall district and a neighboring school district land and cash worth more than $50 million. Poe has approvals for 4,300 units and hopes that the county will allow 4,600 more.
Until now, "we've been dealing with Dale Poe for many years without getting anywhere," McGrath said.
The force altering the Santa Clarita Valley development scene is the General Plan growth guide approved by the five-member Regional Planning Commission in May. The General Plan does not confer approval on specific projects but rather lays down a blueprint for growth through 2010.
If the supervisors approve it in its present form, the plan would permit only 12,500 of 38,000 units proposed by developers, leaving 25,500 in limbo. The General Plan is based on estimates of population growth and the services needed to support that population. It is a long-range document not tied to the existing real estate slump.
The seeds of this restrictive new plan were planted, ironically, by developers throughout the 1980s.
General plans are designed to be flexible documents that can be modified to reflect new trends. But during the mid-1980s, the Santa Clarita Valley General Plan no longer guided development because builders flooded the county with requests to amend the plan to allow their projects. Many of their requests were granted.
Unlike simple zoning changes, General Plan amendments typically call for significant changes in land use. Newhall Land & Farming Co., for example, asked for one amendment that would allow 1,215 units built on land zoned for only 32. A decision is pending.
Regional planning commissioners complained that they were unable to focus on the overall planning picture in the valley because they were besieged by so many individual projects requiring plan amendments.
Expressing concern that the General Plan was out of their control, planning commissioners froze all pending amendments on June 21, 1988, and announced that they would overhaul the entire General Plan. "It became very apparent to us that we could not go on," former Commissioner Betty Fisher said.
Although many developers didn't realize it at the time, a new era had begun.
"That day, the whole game plan changed," said developer Dirk Gosda of Korek Land Co.
That game plan took many developers by surprise. Some builders, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they thought that the freeze on plan amendments was an election-year ploy instigated by Antonovich, who that same month was forced into a runoff with former supervisor and slow-growth advocate Baxter Ward.
Some builders guessed that Antonovich was trying to win support in the Santa Clarita Valley, where a strong anti-growth sentiment prevailed. Such sentiments fueled the successful drive to incorporate a portion of the valley into the city of Santa Clarita in 1987.