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California and the West

Ring of Trails Weds City to Rural Past

Parkland: Circle of green around Thousand Oaks is designed to keep urbanization at bay. It has been nearly three decades in the making.

June 24, 1997|DAVID R. BAKER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

THOUSAND OAKS — On a hill above a blue reservoir, the trail dissolves into a field of grass and wild mustard. A line of bent yellow stalks show where bikers have forged ahead, then given up.

Two miles away, beyond streets and homes and subdivisions, the trail starts again in a condo's backyard. Climbing a rutted fire road, it leaves behind the scraped and flattened earth that soon will become a new neighborhood.

For nearly three decades, city planners have worked on this trail, piecing it together link by link. They have negotiated for the rights to old utility roads, wheedled gifts of land from movie stars and squeezed developers for property they can add to the system. Their handiwork, when complete, will circle Thousand Oaks in a nearly unbroken chain.

More than that, the Conejo Valley Ring Trail will enshrine in dirt and gravel one of this community's most cherished notions: the idea that a ring of undeveloped open space should always surround this growing city.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 25, 1997 Valley Edition Part A Page 3 Zones Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Ring Trail--In some editions of Tuesday's Times, part of the article on the Conejo Valley Ring Trail did not appear. The story is reprinted in its entirety today on B11.

The planners and local volunteers building and maintaining this trail did not set out to create a Central Park, a green heart to a concrete city. Instead, they surrounded themselves with green, gathered it around the town's outskirts like a moat, a way to keep the San Fernando Valley's grinding urbanization at bay.

The ring is about 85% complete, a dusty line linking oak groves to grasslands to crumbling cliffs. Another segment, threading through a proposed housing development, will be designed soon, as the developer fights for city approval of his plans.

The trail is a lesson in Thousand Oaks history and the slow process of building what amounts to a unique, 45-mile park--a park that will last, planners hope, as long as the city.

Decades ago, the city's original General Plan called for homes to spread across this grassy plateau. The land, privately owned at the time, was flat and broad and seemed a logical place to build.

But city residents had grown attached to the plateau, known as Wildwood Mesa. When Orange Builders proposed putting about 170 houses on the land, the project touched off one of the battles over development that have shaped Thousand Oaks politics.

This battle climaxed in an unusual land swap brokered by the city, four private firms and three public agencies in 1986. In the end, Orange built about 50 homes on the mesa, and the rest of the land--228 acres--became part of Wildwood Park.

"We were clicking our heels, it was so ingenious," said Rorie Skei, chairwoman of the city's Conejo Open Space Conservation Agency and a Thousand Oaks resident since 1972.

Although the Wildwood land swap was unusually complex, it followed the pattern that has characterized the building of most of this city's park and open space: The city pushes for donations of open space from developers, who then tout those donations when trying to win public support.

Although the process yields results, it still troubles some within the city's slow-growth contingent.

"I think of it as a bribe in a sense," said City Councilwoman Linda Parks, an ardent hiker, environmentalist and opponent of many recent development projects. "If a developer offered you a million or half a million for building in open space, you'd say no. But if they offer land that's worth a million, we say yes."

However residents view it, the tug of war between city officials and developers is once again in full swing several miles east of Wildwood.

Plans call for 273 homes on about 90 acres of former range land, straddling the trail's proposed path. Alternating between the photos and maps, developer Michael Rosenfeld shows where the new streets and blocks will be if the Woodbridge project wins the City Council's approval.

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The proposal is already drawing fire, with critics complaining that its location would bridge the moat of open space around Thousand Oaks and link the city with Simi Valley's Wood Ranch neighborhood, which lies just over a hill.

Rosenfeld, a principal in Woodridge Associates L.L.C., has heard those complaints. He insists, however, that the project will do just the opposite. If approved, Woodridge will donate 625 acres to the city, adding another link to the ring of open space.

"It's a real critical piece of the whole mosaic, he said. "We're damn proud of it. We're giving away a lot of land."

He has no illusions about whether the land gift and trail access will win over all opponents.

"There are some elements in the community who wouldn't be satisfied unless we dedicated 100% of our land," he said. "I don't think we'll satisfy that element."

How do you build a trail? More often than not, you don't. You look for an old ranch road or fire road going in the general direction you want, then negotiate for access rights to it.

Some of the open spaces along the ring trail, including the slopes below Simi Peak, are a maze of rutted dirt paths. Utility roads shadow electrical lines. An old dirt drive runs past a toppled, rusted windmill--the remains of an abandoned ranch.

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