Eastern Ventura County can present a daunting landscape for a developer.
A legion of open-space devotees stands ready to challenge any incursion into the area's postcard-like scenery. Public hearings on housing and commercial projects in Moorpark, Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley can--and often do--drag on night after night, as residents argue against projects they say will turn the area into a smoggy extension of the San Fernando Valley.
So several developers have taken a more strategic approach to wooing area residents, trying to get on a neighborhood's good side before building a shopping mall or housing tract next door. In Thousand Oaks, for instance, one developer let residents help design his $35-million commercial center long before taking the project to the city's Planning Commission. Another builder used a similar method to win speedy Planning Commission approval for his retail project, situated across the street.
And now the company hoping to build the final, long-delayed Long Canyon neighborhood in Simi Valley's Wood Ranch area has taken the next logical step to ensure its plans get a warm welcome.
It has formed its own fan club.
The Friends of Long Canyon includes about 100 Simi Valley residents, organized by developer New Urban West to push for city approval of the company's plans.
Members receive a newsletter produced by New Urban West, meet to discuss the project's progress and take guided bus tours of the site to see where the company hopes to build 652 residences. They talk about how much the city needs the 500-student elementary school that money from the development will help build. And they talk with their neighbors, encouraging them to support the project.
New Urban West sees the volunteer Friends group as both a bridge to the community and a kind of running focus group for providing feedback. After forming a similar organization to support an earlier project in Huntington Beach, company Vice President Tom Zanic said such groups can make a big difference when a project comes up for city council approval.
"Generally, when there's a large project and there isn't much information on it, when it comes to a public hearing the people who support it don't show up. But the people who don't like it go," he said. "This [having supporters] makes for a better environment for public decision-making."
The company first considered creating a support group when working on the Seacliff project, a plan to build up to 3,800 residences in Huntington Beach. Although the company had usually dealt with existing homeowner groups, the size of the Seacliff project and the Santa Moncia-based company's unfamiliarity with the community made executives choose a more organized approach.
"It was a new city for us, and we decided to do it in a little more formalized way," Zanic said.
They created Friends and Neighbors of Seacliff. Members received updates on the plans and helped name some of the streets in the development. More importantly, when Huntington Beach held public hearings on the project, neighborhood supporters were there to speak up.
Zanic said their vocal support helped win city approval.
"It was a contributing factor," he said. "We had good plans--we felt proud of the plans to begin with. But it just made the whole process go a whole lot smoother."
In March, Wood Ranch resident Theresa Berenger received a call asking her to a breakfast meeting with Zanic. She said she went out of curiosity, both as a resident and as a real estate agent who sells property in Wood Ranch.
About 10 people from Wood Ranch attended, listening as Zanic outlined the company's plans. When Zanic talked about forming Friends of Long Canyon, Berenger decided to join.
"I was very interested because, to me, it was a unique approach," she said. "I'd never been asked by a developer for my input."
Berenger is now the group's president. Drumming up support for the project has been easy, she said, considering how long people have waited for Wood Ranch and its school to be finished.
"In this project, it's not a matter of can they or should they do this, because it's already planned for," she said. "It's supposed to have been there all along. . . . People are irate that the park never got developed, that the school didn't get built, that the trails didn't get finished."
Although Berenger's group is unusual within Ventura County, other area developers have tried new ways to win friends and influence city councils. Rick Caruso, president of Caruso Affiliated Holdings, began meeting with residents of the Westlake neighborhood of Thousand Oaks before drawing up plans for a shopping plaza at Westlake and Thousand Oaks boulevards.
"The goal is we get the community to buy into the project early on," he said. "We don't go to them with any ideas--it's a blank piece of paper at the first meeting."