The developer and the conservationist stood atop South Mountain, their legs covered with canvas chaps to blunt the strikes of rattlesnakes and their minds full of possibilities--an unlikely pair planning the future of Ventura County.
Dave O. White, a powerful force behind local growth, and Peter Brand, a point man for the California Coastal Conservancy, peered back along the twisting Santa Clara River 12 miles to the ocean.
"Wouldn't it be incredible if wildlife could start from here and go all the way down to the coast," White said to Brand. "I know a lot of these landowners, and I can help you achieve your vision."
With that conversation in 1997, White and Brand began a collaboration that now includes three major wetlands projects and two huge development plans that could change the face of Oxnard over the next 20 years.
"I would encourage environmentalists to get over the thought that you can't be a developer and a conservationist too," said Brand recently, referring to White. "He's been a strong supporter of what we're trying to do, without a quid pro quo."
But if White is now a champion of environmentally sensitive development, that has not always been the case. For at least 15 years, environmentalists and anti-sprawl activists have considered him a threat to Ventura County farmland.
They ridiculed his 1997 plan to build an agriculture theme park on 90 acres of farmland outside city boundaries in the fertile Oxnard Plain. They raked his 1999 effort to sell a 13-acre farm parcel in an Oxnard "greenbelt" for a new elementary school. And they fought him for years over construction of Oxnard High School, now completed on 53 acres of former prime cropland on the city's western flank.
To them, White is a greenbelt buster, a farmland manager with a bulldozer in his back pocket.
"He's a gentleman," said former Oxnard Councilwoman Dorothy Maron. "But he does crummy things with farmland."
At age 60, after 31 years of local deals, White has a bigger piece of the development pie than any other builder, broker and manager of land in Ventura County.
A quiet, persuasive behind-the-scenes real estate developer, White and his partners control 2,400 acres in Oxnard alone: the proposed 416-home River Ridge West golf course community, the planned $750-million RiverPark mini-city along the Ventura Freeway, and the vast 1,400-acre Ormond Beach area near Point Mugu.
Those projects account for nearly two-thirds of all the land that can be developed in Oxnard, and more than one-sixth of the developable acres in Ventura County.
In another realm, White has grown wealthy coaxing crops from the Ventura County farms he manages, then selling pieces of that acreage for construction. White and his older brother, Frank, own most of Ag Land Services, which oversees 2,500 acres of cropland in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
The Whites are also real estate brokers who made the largest property sale in county history--the 1996 deal in which legendary Oxnard developer Martin V. "Bud" Smith unloaded most of his assets to a Wall Street investor for $175 million.
White, in fact, is sometimes compared with Smith--the most prolific developer in county history.
"Bud was the visionary of the last 50 years," said Ventura rancher and businesswoman Carolyn Leavens. "And it appears that Dave is pushing that vision right into the future."
Steve Kinney, executive director of the Greater Oxnard Economic Development Corp., said White's long-term impact could eventually rival that of Smith--who developed part of Channel Islands Harbor and the county's only high-rise towers at the Oxnard Financial Plaza.
"If he succeeds with just these three projects," Kinney said, "he and his group will have the greatest single impact on the face of Oxnard, other than Martin Smith, in the city's history."
He's Made a Career of Focusing on Oxnard
That White is in such a position is testament to his perseverance, the Oxnard-centric focus of his development activity and his use of partnerships to cobble together projects that catch the eye of city officials.
He is also good at get-acquainted lunches, low-key lobbying to move projects forward and timely campaign contributions to city officials.
He is a developer who has donated money to the Nature Conservancy, and who can identify every bird he sees by name, gender and marking. He reads several books at a time: "Black Holes and Time Warps," a text about multiple universes, is a current favorite.
The son of a San Bernardino aircraft mechanic and a homemaker, and a graduate of San Jose State College, White is unpretentious and plain-spoken.
He has been married to wife Leila for 41 years, and he lived in a 2,000-square-foot tract house in Camarillo until 1993, far longer than financially necessary. He now lives in a $1-million house on the ocean.
On any Saturday, he might roll out for a 40-mile bike ride to Ojai and back. For years, he would kayak four miles out to Gina, the offshore oil island, just for fun.