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Green Countryside Becomes a Battleground : Zoning: Neighbors fear the clearing of a Somis citrus grove will lead to a crush of people if a developer is allowed to build on one-acre lots.

October 22, 1995|CARLOS V. LOZANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One by one the orange and lemon trees are disappearing, plowed over by bulldozers, then bunched together in large heaps for burning or shredding.

The Somis landowner says that because the soil is poor and unprofitable to farm, the 200-acre orchard is being cleared.

But the owner's real motive, neighbors say, is eventually to replace the trees with houses, a move they fear would push semi-rural Ventura County one step closer to becoming a concrete jungle like its neighbor to the south.

Indeed, for such homeowners as Clyde Pratt, the green countryside that for years has provided a peaceful setting in which to live and raise kids is quickly turning into a battleground over the county's future.

At issue is whether a British-based developer should be allowed to change the zoning on its agricultural land for building purposes. To allow this, Pratt and others say, would violate growth policies in place for a quarter century that call for keeping urban development in and around cities.

Worse yet, it would encourage developers to gobble up more of the county's dwindling farmland, they said.

"If this is allowed," Pratt said, "I firmly believe it will result in the destruction of Ventura County because there will be no justification for the county to maintain open space anywhere."

The development proposal has stirred protests from the county's 10 cities, prompting the county to put together a special committee to take another look at its development guidelines and zoning policies.

But the developer known as Knightsbridge Holdings says that residents and city officials are overstating the issue and maintains that its proposal to build 189 homes in no way conflicts with the county's development guidelines.

Those guidelines discourage urban development on farmland, but put no restrictions on "rural" development, said Knightsbridge consultant Dennis Hardgrave. Rural zoning allows for one residence per acre, which is what the developer is proposing, he said.

The project would be an extension of an existing community of 140 homes, Hardgrave said.

"This will not be precedent-setting," Hardgrave said. "This is a rural project, not an urban project."

The ensuing battle centers on varying interpretations of the county's Guidelines for Orderly Development--a set of rules held so sacrosanct by some local planners and activists that they refer to it by its acronym, GOD.

First adopted in 1969, the guidelines are a master plan intended to prevent the kind of urban sprawl that has paved over the once agriculturally rich San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys and stripped Orange County of the orchards it was named for.

And to a large extent, the guidelines, which simply state that urban development should take place within city boundaries, have been successful, said Bill Fulton, an urban-planning expert based in Ventura.

"They've done exactly what they were supposed to do and that is to channel suburban development into cities and to maintain separation between those cities," Fulton said. "If the guidelines had not been in place, this wouldn't have happened."

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The Knightsbridge proposal, however, promises to be a major test of the county's development policies.

Over the protests of homeowners, a majority of the Board of Supervisors voted in July to allow the developer to apply for a zoning change and to begin an environmental study of its proposed project. Supervisors Maggie Kildee and Susan Lacey voted against the request.

The Knightsbridge proposal may not technically violate the county's development guidelines, but it does infringe on the spirit of those policies, Kildee said.

"It might be rural, but I think of it as urban development because the people who live in these houses are going to expect urban services," she said.

As for the existing homes, Kildee said, they were built over a period of 30 or more years, and not in one fell swoop as Knightsbridge is proposing. To allow the development, she said, would overburden roads as well as fire, police and school services.

Knightsbridge, on the other hand, argues that the development will enhance services to the area and make them cheaper to deliver. Developer fees collected from the project, for example, could be used to improve the already heavily congested California 118 and California 34 junction, Hardgrave said.

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Without the development, the needed improvement may never be made, he said.

Yet many growers in the Las Posas Valley remain opposed to the Knightsbridge project because they believe it would encourage more development that could hurt their businesses, said Craig Underwood, whose family owns 400 acres of farmland nearby.

"This type of use doesn't belong out there," Underwood said. "No matter what you want to call it, it is urban when you plunk this kind of development down in the middle of agricultural land."

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