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Seventh-day Adventist Project Called Threat to Grasslands : Newbury Park: But analysts conclude the commercial complex would not significantly affect traffic.

August 26, 1994|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Building a regional mall and private school on the Seventh-day Adventist property in Newbury Park would uproot endangered plants and destroy a valuable grasslands habitat, city analysts have concluded.

But the project would not significantly affect traffic, noise or air quality in nearby neighborhoods, according to a newly released environmental impact report. And while the blueprints call for substantial grading, the developers could preserve most of Newbury Park's scenic ridgelines.

Introduced in 1993, the huge commercial project has sparked concern from its neighbors in Newbury Park, who have predicted traffic jams, garish signs and late-night crime. They fear the project--together with several new subdivisions--would destroy the rural atmosphere of their community.

The Seventh-day Adventist proposal would plunk a huge outdoor mall--with 70% as much retail space as The Oaks--just north of the Ventura Freeway at the Wendy Drive off-ramp.

Anchored by a Target mega-store and a 12-screen movie theater, the development would feature traditional red-tile roofs and an old-fashioned town plaza. With infrastructure and road improvements, including a reconfiguration of the Wendy Drive off-ramp, the price tag will easily top $100 million, architect Francisco Behr said.

"They're saying there won't be traffic or pollution--give me a break," Sierra Club activist Cassandra Auerbach said. "You look at those arguments and you say, 'Excuse me?' "

To build the 750,000-square-foot shopping center, the Seventh-day Adventist Church must relocate its private school, horse stables and senior citizen bungalows. Church officials plan to move all those facilities north, to a hilly campus with spectacular views.

That northern portion of the church's 400-acre property, however, contains the most delicate habitats, including oak woodlands and riparian corridors, the report said.

The church school and retirement center would destroy 38 acres of grassland, which contains native species such as the chocolate lily. The project would also require some grading along the upper reaches of a creek.

Most dramatically, building the school would wipe out the local population of Blochman's dudleya, an endangered cactus-type plant that sprouts leaves in star-shaped formations and blooms with bright flowers after rains, the report said.

To save the dudleya flowers, church officials will try to transplant them, Behr said.

But Auerbach said the only sure-fire solution would be to steer clear of the dudleya's turf altogether. "Putting buildings on the north side of that property is a big mistake," she said.

While recognizing the presence of endangered species, church consultant Dale Ortmann said the vaunted grassland "is not a pristine meadow." Used for years as grazing land, the property is speckled with chunks of concrete, rusty car parts and an old water heater.

The biological damage, he said, could be minimized by good design and careful transplanting. And to make up for lost habitat, he said, the developer will provide miles of new trails crisscrossing through the property and connecting to National Park Service land.

"I'm not looking at this like it's a project-stopping issue," Ortmann said.

Aside from the biological issues, the Seventh-day Adventist project earned good marks throughout much of the environmental impact report.

"We had tons of meetings, spent tons of hours and put in tons of work to design this project, and I think (the report's conclusions) reflect that," Behr said.

The church's consultants have also held more than 30 meetings with residents to explain the project. And they say they have encountered little opposition. Among their most persuasive tools: an economic study indicating that the Target store could capture sales-tax dollars from shoppers who now trek to Oxnard or Simi Valley to browse through discount malls.

"We don't consider this a controversial project," Ortmann said.

Yet with the City Council election just two months away, some residents predict the church's project could become controversial. Certainly, it could emerge as the focal point of a widely anticipated debate between slow-growth and pro-development candidates.

"I know I won't vote for anyone who supports this project," resident Marc Josephson said. "I think it's a terrible idea for Newbury Park."

The Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the project Oct. 17. Residents have until Sept. 29 to submit written comments to the city on the environmental impact report. The City Council could hear the issue before the Nov. 8 election. And if approved, construction could begin by next spring, developers said.

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