Bill Janss Sr., a member of the prominent family that helped Thousand Oaks become Ventura County's largest city east of the Conejo Grade, died of cancer Wednesday. He was 78.
An avid skier and onetime member of the U.S. Olympic ski team, Janss died at his home in Sun Valley, Idaho. A once sleepy town, Sun Valley grew into a ski resort with an international reputation thanks to Janss, whose Sun Valley Co. built the town into a meeting place for the rich and famous.
Through foresight and shrewd business sense, Janss and his brother, Edwin Janss Jr., allowed Thousand Oaks to operate in its early days without a property tax, according to Alex Fiore, a seven-term mayor.
Fiore explained the deal this way: A committee seeking to incorporate Thousand Oaks had been established in 1964, and it had a plan for a valleywide city, to be operated without any property tax. Instead, sales tax revenue to pay for municipal services would come from the Janss Mall, which was already open.
At the eleventh hour, a rival group came up with a plan to incorporate Newbury Park separately on the far western end of the Conejo Valley. The proposed boundaries included the mall, which is located on Moorpark Road.
The Newbury Park group tried to put the plan to a vote of the people, but failed to gather enough petition signatures to get the issue on the ballot.
"The Janss Corp. stepped up and said if the vote for our plan was favorable they would move for annexation of their property into Thousand Oaks," Fiore said. "On Oct. 7, 1964, the night we were sworn in as the first City Council, they kept their word and came to the meeting to pledge their support."
Thousand Oaks is one of several areas in Southern California that the Janss family has been involved in developing. The family, which once owned tens of thousands of acres, has developed such areas as Westwood Village, Boyle Heights, Monterey Park and portions of the San Fernando Valley.
In March 1995, the Janss Corp. was presented with the USC School of Architecture's Parkinson Spirit of Urbanism Award in recognition of 100 years of innovative real estate development. Four months later, company officials announced that the Janss Corp. would close its doors by the end of the year.
At the time, Janss' cousin, Larry Janss of Thousand Oaks, said the family's vast fortune had become "a twinkling of its former self" after 100 years and distribution to 15 heirs. The state's recession also hampered the corporation's fortunes.
The family's holdings were split into three portions in 1981, and there had been little development since then. The company's only ongoing project was a $60-million renovation of the Janss Mall. In 1995, with the company facing bankruptcy, the project was taken over by the Janss Corp.'s financial backer, Goldman Sachs, the New York-based investment banking firm.
But Fiore says nothing can tarnish the successes of Bill Janss Sr. and his brother. "I think this city might have gone in a different direction, had it not been for them. We would not have had the means to operate the city without a property tax," Fiore said. Local officials reluctantly began collecting property taxes in the late 1980s in response to a state law that diverted sales tax money from city coffers, Fiore said.
Janss is survived by his wife, Glenn; son, Bill Janss Jr. of Memphis, Tenn.; and two daughters, Mary, who lives in Oregon, and Susan of Salt Lake City. Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.