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Calabasas Cityhood Appears a Certainty : Incorporation: After 11 years of battles, residents will decide March 5 whether to become the county's 88th municipality.

February 24, 1991|AMY LOUISE KAZMIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the months preceding Santa Clarita's 1987 incorporation election, developers who feared a new city would inhibit their projects waged a fierce campaign to dissuade voters from supporting cityhood.

But in Calabasas, where residents will vote March 5 on whether to become the county's 88th city, opposition to incorporation is almost nonexistent.

According to longtime community residents and activists, the reason is simple: After 10 years of rapid growth, there is only a small amount of vacant land left in the proposed city, so would-be developers have little reason to fear incorporation.

While cityhood advocates were fighting for incorporation, more than 4,500 new single-family houses, condominiums and apartment buildings were built in Calabasas. And at least 800 more residences have already been approved for construction within the proposed city boundaries by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

"There's not a lot of land in the city that's virgin," acknowledged Arnold Sank, vice president of the cityhood committee.

Despite the fact that development control was the original aim of incorporation, cityhood appears to be a virtual certainty for Calabasas. Community leaders say that residents are well aware of the advantages that cityhood can bring: local control of tax revenues, responsive government leaders and better services.

But scars from the 11-year battle remain and development is still an issue in an area where it appears growth will continue unabated for some time.

Many residents blame county bureaucrats and elected officials for stalling the cityhood drive while approving new projects. Even incorporation leaders have been criticized for negotiating a deal with a developer that will allow him to build hundreds of new residences. And most undeveloped land on the outskirts of the area was excluded from proposed city boundaries by the county's Local Agency Formation Commission, leaving it under county jurisdiction.

"Agoura Hills was the fastest growing city in the county for several years after their incorporation and it was all stuff approved by L.A. County," said Dave Brown, president of the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation. "We are going to have the same situation out here and what's going to happen is that the city council is going to get blamed for it."

Marvin Lopata, a cityhood activist and candidate for the proposed council, said LAFCO generally "does not want new cities to control a lot of vacant land, so they gerrymander maps to exclude it. We wanted more and we should have had more."

Some community members also fault cityhood leaders for voluntarily relinquishing control over the largest tract of undeveloped land left in the proposed city--the 1,250 acres of rugged land southeast of the Ventura Freeway and Las Virgenes Road owned by The Baldwin Co.

Developer Jim Baldwin was a staunch opponent of cityhood, and stymied an early incorporation effort by recruiting his sister to file a lawsuit against LAFCO, according to cityhood leaders. But Baldwin withdrew his opposition in December, 1989, when cityhood leaders--after months of negotiations--agreed not to fight the developer's plans to build 550 residences, a church and a commercial center.

Some community members say that cityhood leaders should not have agreed to let Baldwin build so many houses, and should have pushed harder for reduced density.

The General Plan for the area where Baldwin plans to build called for 132 houses, and in 1989 Supervisor Mike Antonovich promised the community that he would limit the company to building just 350 houses there.

"Baldwin is trampling on the city left and right," said Michael Fichera, one of the 13 candidates for the Calabasas council. "Coaching from the sidelines is probably unfair, but the people who are doing the negotiating for the community made a mistake."

But cityhood leaders who negotiated with the company defend the agreement, saying that it was the best deal they could extract from the developer, who originally envisioned about 1,500 residences there.

Without securing Baldwin's support, they said, cityhood would have been doomed.

"We had no standing to make any more stringent demands on these folks," said Dennis Washburn, one of the cityhood leaders who negotiated with the company. "We had no power."

The drive for cityhood began more than 11 years ago when the Board of Supervisors took steps to permit more intensive development in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Concerned West Valley residents decided that forming a city with the power to set its own zoning laws was the best way to save the pristine land. They proposed creating the city of Rancho Las Virgenes, 44 square miles including the areas now incorporated as Agoura Hills and Westlake Village, with a population of about 32,000.

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