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Planners Reverse Ruling on Developing Environmentally Sensitive Land : Newbury Park: Commission says wetlands need more protection. Developer in 12-year battle blames the new decision on 'politics.'


A Thousand Oaks developer's 12-year battle to build on a 47-acre lot in Newbury Park hit yet another setback as city planners reversed a ruling that would have allowed a commercial project to be built there.

The Planning Commission's vote, taken late Monday, could limit construction on the environmentally sensitive land, wiping away zoning for a shopping center and sharply reducing the number of homes permitted on the property. The decision still needs to be approved by the City Council.

Nedjatollah Cohan and his son Albert Cohen, who have fought and lost countless battles with the city over the property at Reino Road and Kimber Drive, were furious at a decision they called a "shot from the hip."

"This is ridiculous," an angry Cohen said after the meeting. "They had nothing to support this decision. It's politics, plain and simple."

But the commission, on a 3-2 vote, decided that another shopping center in Newbury Park was unnecessary and the wetlands on Cohan's property needed greater protection.

"It's pretty tough to cram a shopping center down people's throats when it's clear they don't want it," Commissioner Marilyn Carpenter said. "It's also clear that there is a strong expression of community will in terms of preserving these wetlands."

Carpenter said she agreed with a 1993 recommendation by then-Mayor Judy Lazar, which said a shopping center would require "a sea of asphalt" that could threaten the property's sensitive natural habitat.

Commission Chairman Irving Wasserman, who voted with Carpenter and Commissioner Linda Parks, said hundreds of Newbury Park residents have expressed a desire to see the wetlands preserved.

Because the items before the commission required a change in the city's General Plan, Wasserman said the normally nonpolitical commission was correct in taking some degree of public expression into account.

"Somewhere, the needs and desires of the community have to be a factor," Wasserman said. "Community opinion is what has shaped the General Plan and shaped the way this city looks."

But Cohan argued that the public did not know the facts about his property and brought in a battery of financial experts to testify to the benefits of developing the land.

After the speakers had finished, Commissioner Forrest Frields said he was convinced there was a need for commercial development at the site.

"I think the commercial viability of such a project has been amply demonstrated," Frields said. "I think it is appropriate for us to consider the need for commercial development here, and I'm sorry that we're going to see this voted down on a 3-2 vote."

Equally frustrated was Commissioner Mervyn Kopp, who, after sitting quietly through most of the meeting, became extremely vocal in opposition of the zone change.

"I am totally, 100%, unalterably opposed to the motion (to change the zoning)," Kopp said. "I say, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' "

Kopp said he believed the commission would appear inconsistent because it approved Cohan's development plans in 1992. Those plans were later overturned by the City Council.

After the council's decision, Cohan sued the city--he lost and the case is now on appeal--and Cohan's son said this decision may lead down the same path.

"We're just going to have to sue the city again," Cohen said. "All this is an effort to get us to sit down and negotiate and we won't do it. It's our land."

Cohen said what upset him the most about the decision was that in the 12 years he has been fighting the city, the wetlands on his property have multiplied.

The wetlands, which now stretch in two large branches through the center of the land, are the result of drainage from developments around the property.

"We have waited and waited, and now, all of a sudden, we have willows on our property and that's it," Cohen said. "Now they say, 'Sorry Mr. Cohen, but now we have to preserve the willows.' "

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