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Ventura County

Builder Donates 57 Acres for Park

Conservation: Shea Homes will get a $2.4-million tax credit for the Thousand Oaks land. It had planned to construct 21 houses.


The plans called for 21 luxury homes on 57 acres at the edge of McCrea Ranch in northern Thousand Oaks.

Instead, builder Shea Homes handed the land over Tuesday to the Conejo Recreation and Park District in one of the latest conservation agreements under the state's Natural Heritage and Preservation tax-credit program.

By donating the land, the builder will get a $2.4-million tax credit, 55% of the land's appraised fair market value. Wetlands, wildlife and Chumash remains on the property will receive added protection. And the public will get unobstructed views of nature when a 340-acre park, ranched by the late cowboy actor Joel McCrea and his family, opens next year.

"Our board of directors is delighted," said Tom Sorensen, the park district's planning administrator. "We didn't want a bunch of houses across the street."

Two years ago, the state Legislature and Gov. Gray Davis signed off on the tax-credit program as a way for state and local agencies to acquire open space at a discount. The program allows as much as $100 million in tax credits through 2005 for property owners who donate land or water rights for conservation.

The state's Wildlife Conservation Board decides whether applicants' properties are worth preserving with tax credits; $39 million in credits have been granted to date. The first credit, approved last spring, was $1.3 million to Mid-State Bank for property in Cambria. Another 12 credits have been granted since, said Al Wright, executive director of the conservation board. Those included a $16-million credit in Malibu and the Shea Homes land in Thousand Oaks.

Several other applicants are scrambling for consideration, although with the state's budget woes, some lawmakers have proposed cutting the program short.

Property owners have any number of reasons for participating rather than building or selling, Wright said. They may need a short-term tax break more than a long-term land profit. Or the tax credit might yield greater profit than development, particularly if community resistance to building plans or the discovery of rare plants or animals would mean years of costly delays.

Shea Homes sought the tax credit last year, although it already had the entitlements to build. Company officials declined to discuss details of that decision.

Even with the $2.4-million credit, said Regional Manager Steve Seeman, the company will lose money on the site. But the credit "minimized a loss we would have taken by simply donating the land," he said.

Sorensen doesn't care why Shea went the route it did; he is pleased with the results.

When fully operational, the park will pay homage to ranch life, featuring the McCreas' estate house, a foreman's house, barns and chicken coops, a lake stocked with fish and perhaps a museum with exhibits on ranching and western film actors. It might have been difficult, he said, to reconcile such a nostalgic theme with a skyline of suburban mansions.

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