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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Council to Debate Land Swap With Developers

Housing: The complicated deal would give the city open space but allow a builder to construct condos instead of senior units in the Dos Vientos subdivision.

March 12, 2001|JENIFER RAGLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

THOUSAND OAKS — The stage is set for a showdown Tuesday that has city leaders facing a choice between long-coveted open space and the possibility of much-needed housing for senior citizens.

The Thousand Oaks City Council will consider a complicated development-rights swap that aims to save 180 acres of land known as the Western Plateau, once owned by MGM film studios and now slated for 147 single-family homes.

But in a series of concessions involving three developers, the deal would scrap plans for senior apartments in the still-developing Dos Vientos subdivision and replace those units with more lucrative--and more densely populated--condominiums and townhomes.

While most plans to save vacant land can count on support from the Conejo Valley's slow-growth factions, this one has run into strong opposition from the politicians who won a campaign in November promising more open space.

Though slow-growth advocates say they want to see the plateau spared from bulldozers, they also object to the consequences for the area's seniors in desperate need of housing and for the quality of life of residents in the upscale enclave of Dos Vientos.

They also insist the Western Plateau would be extremely difficult for owner Shapell Industries to develop, and therefore suggest preserving the land by raising money to buy it.

"To me, eliminating 275 units for seniors is too much of a loss to our community to make up for public acquisition of the Western Plateau, which I don't believe is in any real immediate threat of development," Councilwoman Linda Parks said.

A development agreement from the early 1980s giving Shapell the right to build 147 homes on one-acre lots expires July 1. However, the developer can forever lock in those rights by filing paperwork that Shapell has been preparing for the last several months, City Atty. Mark Sellers said.

But with Parks and first-term Councilman Ed Masry forming a solid alliance against any concessions to developers, they say they could play environmental hardball to keep the parcel vacant.

"After July 1, the chances of Shapell ever developing that property are slim to none," Masry said. "He won't get my vote."

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The suggested land swap involves Shapell giving up its development rights on the plateau in exchange for being allowed to build the same number of units in other parts of the city, including on land owned by two other developers, Miller Brothers Investments and Operating Engineers Trust. Those developers, in turn, would receive authorization to build more profitable housing than the apartments geared to seniors and other low-income tenants.

Proponents of the swap say other components of the deal make up for the loss of senior housing, including pledges of $500,000 in housing subsidies and guaranteed financing for 50 affordable units on a different site. Although the 350 senior and affordable apartments in Dos Vientos are part of the original plans, there is nothing requiring the developers to build them.

As a result, Many Mansions, the Thousand Oaks-based nonprofit agency dedicated to affordable housing, has endorsed the compromise, board President Rick Schroeder said.

And there is no indication that Shapell officials will walk away from its investment in the Western Plateau.

Bill Ross, an attorney representing the Beverly Hills developer, said it would be cheaper to build in Dos Vientos but said a Western Plateau project is not cost-prohibitive given the potential value of 147 lots that could retail for $1 million each.

"It's worth a considerable amount," he said.

As far as what it would cost for conservationists to purchase the land, Shapell has not shown any interest in selling, said Rorie Skei, deputy director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. And the property is too important to risk losing the chance to save it, she said.

"If there's one house or 150 houses, it really compromises the ecological and visual resources on the site," Skei said. The plateau, an expanse of volcanic rock near the city's northwest border next to Wildwood Park, is home to unusual and rare plants and is part of an important corridor for mountain lions, deer and bobcats, she said.

In October, City Council members approved the swap concept--crafted by Councilman Andy Fox on behalf of the council--with Parks as the lone dissenter. Councilman Dennis Gillette could not be reached for comment Friday, but has supported the proposal.

That leaves Mayor Dan Del Campo as the likely swing vote. Although Del Campo wouldn't reveal where he stands, he predicts Tuesday night's hearing will be one of the longest and most fiery city meetings in recent council history.

Masry agreed.

"The only thing you get out of staff without vigorous cross-examination is bologna, and if they don't like me now, they're going to dislike me even more come Tuesday night," he said.

The deal would:

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