VENTURA — Martha Zeiher is fighting a development that hasn't even been proposed.
She's boiling that the Ventura hillside--the soaring backdrop and what she calls the "sacred spot" above this beachfront city--could be dotted with luxury homes.
She's worried that this unpretentious, brambly little corner of the world could turn into something resembling Santa Barbara's slopes of cliff-clinging mansions.
She's convinced that the area is destined for development if she and others don't step in.
That Zeiher is up in arms at this point--when there's no plan on the table, and when, in another era, she might have no inkling of one brewing--shows just how influential and mainstream the once-radical slow-growth laws have become.
In the last few weeks, roughly 5,000 acres above the city owned by several families for more than a century have become the center of a battle between those who own the hills and residents who want their landscape preserved.
The families, who two decades ago might have pushed a project through with little public input, realize that nowadays it's in their best interests to get residents involved in any development plans.
The hillside property is not part of Ventura but is within its sphere of influence, so the city's planning and zoning laws and procedures govern.
Because most of the hillside properties are zoned residential, they are not protected by Ventura's SOAR law, which requires a citywide vote on the development of farmland. So the owners could simply move ahead with the standard development process if they chose.
Instead, they are holding a series of public meetings to discuss potential projects to find one that residents will embrace.
If they come to some conclusion--and many involved concede that's a big "if"--the landowners say they plan to put its development plan to a citywide vote.
"To a certain degree, we're acting as if this is under SOAR laws," said Larry Bucher, president of Lloyd Properties, which owns a large chunk of the property. "In the city of Ventura, it's the approach the public wants."
The landowners, four family-run corporations that each own a large piece of the hillside, say they would like some kind of development, for which they would offer some open space and recreational areas in return. Besides Lloyd Properties, landowners include Dabney-Lloyd Corp., Mariano Rancho Corp. and Walker-Hearne.
Backers of development, including Ventura Mayor Sandy Smith and Community Development Director Susan Daluddung, say a project could pay for environmental cleanup on land marred by long-gone oil production and the cattle that now graze there.
Further, they say, housing would be limited by the landscape itself, with its rugged slopes and nearly impenetrable thickets.
"Why would we want to destroy the charm of the community?" Daluddung asked. "We don't want to wreck that ridgeline view. I can't really see where the hills would be leveled off or built over the top of them."
In fact, proponents say, this would be a prime spot for executive housing: nestled in the rugged canyons out of sight, a magnet for company owners looking to relocate and bring their businesses with them.
Historically, the hills are believed to have been the site of controlled burns by the Chumash Indians hundreds of years ago to protect against destructive wildfires, much as fire departments do on such terrain today. The land more recently has been a place to graze cattle since the arrival of the Spanish more than 200 years ago. And the property hasn't changed much through the years.
Little of the land was used for oil production, but critics say years of grazing cattle has contributed to erosion and other environmental damage.
Development plans date back to the 1880s, when Lewis Lloyd acquired 4,200 acres of what had been Rancho Ex Mission San Buenaventura grant land, with the idea of building homes.
But soon after, the budding housing market crashed. The first and last home building in the area came in the 1950s, when the Ondulando, Clearpoint and Skyline tracts were constructed in the foothills.
It's a sign of just how contentious the issue has become that after the first of the public workshops, a group of citizens almost immediately formed its own organization--Ventura Citizens Against Hillside Development--with the slogan, "Hill No, We Won't Grow!"
At the second session, almost two hours was spent deciding how the five future workshops would be run.
The meetings have drawn hundreds of residents, many of whom are suspicious of the landowners and the city. Among the questions posed: Why do the landowners need so many consultants, if there are no plans yet? Are you just leading residents to a predetermined, but yet undisclosed conclusion? What if we refuse to come to these workshops?
"I'm intimately familiar with the beauty of this land. I love it, and it means a great deal to me," said Ron Blanchette, who lives in the foothills.