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Protest Sprouts Against Plan to Uproot Oaks

Development: Lang Ranch homeowners are fighting to save an ancient grove targeted to make way for a dam project.


The last time Gerry Langer can remember protesting anything, it was the Vietnam War while he was a student at Brooklyn College.

Three decades later, Langer is a 52-year-old clinical psychologist with an upscale tract home in Thousand Oaks, and his cause has modified accordingly.

At noon Saturday, Langer plans to lead a parade of angry neighbors down Westlake Boulevard, marching to save a grove of ancient oak trees targeted to be cut next month to make way for the $5-million Lang Ranch dam.

"We don't want to see this project, no way, no how," Langer said during a break from distributing more than 2,500 fliers urging residents to join the protest. "When something is not right, it's up to me and everybody else to do something about it."

Talk of building a dam dates back to Langer's college days, as development boomed in the late 1960s. But nothing happened with the dam until plans arose to build housing in the Lang Ranch area, where Langer eventually settled.

In 1986, a federal judge approved an agreement calling for a flood control project to accompany construction of Lang Ranch homes.

Annual Assessments Average About $700

The Thousand Oaks City Council approved an environmental review of the project in 1995, and the Ventura County Flood Control District was contracted to build the dam. Lang Ranch homeowners learned they would have to pay for it, and annual assessments in some years topped $1,000. They now average about $700.

Flood control officials say a dam is needed to catch storm water from land paved to support 2,200 homes and apartments and to protect residents downstream in the event of a catastrophic storm. They also say dirt, grass, concrete and a rock-covered dam--a 66 1/2-foot-high embankment with a detention basin four football fields long and a debris basin--would protect wetlands downstream.

The county enlisted a local Boy Scouts troop to collect acorns from among the hundreds of trees in the grove; the sprouts will be planted nearby as saplings. Officials also say they are trying to save as many ancient oaks as possible: They now say about 40 will be removed, down from a previous estimate of 140.

Meanwhile, county officials say homeowners protesting the dam are largely responsible for its need. If not for the Lang Ranch development, they argue, it might have been years before the need for a dam arose.

"There's some irony in this," flood control manager Jeff Pratt said. "It's human nature that when we get someplace we don't want it to change anymore.

"I'd like to believe when we're standing around the table explaining this to those people that we're getting some 'ah-ha' moments, where they realize this isn't a conspiracy, this isn't about bureaucrats in the flood control district swilling coffee and doughnuts and wanting to build something," Pratt said.

"It's tremendously sticky public policy we're walking through," he continued. "But while there's a significant opposition that doesn't like this, there's a larger overall stakeholder that does want this, from downstream property owners to regulators to people who care about riparian and wetlands systems."

Critics of the dam fall into several, often-overlapping categories--and few seem to be having the "ah-ha" moment Pratt suggested.

There are Lang Ranch homeowners still angry over the assessments they've had to pay, concerned about losing the woods near their homes and convinced the dam would pave the way for further development and harm their property values.

Others fear their homes could be damaged, because the site for the dam is near an age-old landslide. Pratt, however, contends that that's not a concern because the site is not part of the landslide. Finally, there are environmental activists who are intent on saving the trees.

Groundbreaking for Dam Expected in April

Many don't want a dam at all, some want a smaller dam, and others have pushed to move the dam to an alternate site nearby. None of these critics, including Councilwoman Linda Parks and Mayor Ed Masry, has been successful is delaying construction.

Though the dam isn't expected to break ground until April, the trees must come down by early February, before birds begin seasonal nesting. Meanwhile, one permit stands in the way of groundbreaking.

The state Division of Safety of Dams must give its OK before construction can begin. Langer and other critics remain hopeful they can find a last-minute way to stymie the project.

If critics do manage to block the dam this spring, Langer argues, the trees will have died needlessly.

In Ojai, on the other end of the county, residents have gone as far as climbing into trees to save them from the saw.

In recent days, as Langer's protest plan has brought back memories of college, he's imagined the Thousand Oaks crowd chaining itself to the oaks and chanting, "Hell no, we won't go!"

Langer doesn't imagine it will come to that. "Don't have me coming across as some Vietnam protester here," he said. "We're trying to be as reasonable and rational as possible."

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