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Homes Sprouting, Farms Dying

The evolution of a Southern California farm, from family fruit orchard to sprawling subdivision, serves as a case study of how the landscape of the region's suburbs is dramatically changing.

February 07, 1999|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VENTURA — Trees snapped and lemons rained down as Phil Kruse's bulldozer churned through yet another orchard.

"There's nothing to it!" Kruse shouted above the din. "It's amazing how fast you can knock something down. I can do 2,400 trees a day--easy!"

An affable Ventura County native, Kruse, 35, has knocked down his share of trees in 15 years of clearing old farms to make way for new suburbs.

Outraged seniors once screamed at him as he cleared the way for a strip mall. But no protesters taunted him today; most of the people tied to this peaceful patch of land have vanished long before.

Even if he could have scanned the old lemon grove for its phantoms, Kruse had no way of knowing about Erastus C. Nichols, a wandering Canadian who came to Ventura in the 1880s and ended up with a citrus fortune. Or Roy Helton, a hired hand who raised six kids in the rundown farmhouse that would soon be leveled.

And no matter how hard Kruse might have squinted, he wouldn't have been able to make out the others who would soon arrive--people like the Januskas, who had dreamed for so long of a new home, and the Silveys, who planned to bless their house by inscribing Bible verses on its unpainted walls.

All Kruse could see were the subdivisions already crowding in on two sides of this neighborhood-to-be and the busy shopping center across the street.

It's an old story in Southern California, the paving of farmland. It's also a continuing story. Every year, dozens of subdivisions sprout on recently productive land as farmers sell out. In 1998, nearly 40,000 homes went up in the region, the most since the early 1990s.

Even in Ventura County, where voters overwhelmingly approved one of the nation's toughest anti-growth laws in November, more than 60,000 homes may still be built in the next two decades. Many will rise on little patches of earth with long histories, like the acreage on Telegraph Road where Kruse's blade scraped away soil and ripped out lemon trees.

Like the other vanishing pockets of land in Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, this 50 acres was much more than dirt and trees.

It has been the setting of a long-running saga that has featured farmers, politicians, builders, neighbors, even the thousands who motored by and believed for a moment that they lived in the country. Kruse is just one more character in the unfolding drama.

When he was a kid, Phil Kruse would visit relatives near this orchard. All he could see then was citrus, an ocean of green without end. But now, as little as he relished laying waste to trees, he had a job to do. With angry finches swooping down to peck away at the roof of his cab, Kruse wistfully delivered what could be an epitaph for Southern California's disappearing farmland.

"This place, its time has come."

A Special Piece of Land

Unlike millions of other new Californians who came west, Erastus C. Nichols wasn't looking for gold or oil or stardom--just a respite from the woolen mill he ran with his brother-in-law in frigid Ontario, Canada.

He arrived during the booming 1880s, and within a few years got the big break he needed. A young engineer who suddenly had to leave the tiny Ventura County farm town of Fillmore for a business opportunity gave his friend Nichols a shot at running the Sespe Land and Water Co.

The engineer, William Mulholland, would go on to become the legendary head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Nichols, meanwhile, enjoyed the great good fortune of running a water company in a thirsty region during a time of drought.

When he died in 1930 at the age of 76, he left behind a small fortune in land--including 50 acres of walnut trees he had bought just two years before on bucolic Telegraph Road.

He also left his son, Ernie, then a premed student at Pomona College, a clear final wish: "You have to take care of the ranch."

Dropping out of college, Ernie Nichols did just that for six decades. He stuck with it through the Depression, when the property lost more than two-thirds of its value. He stuck with it through an up-and-down market for walnuts, finally replacing them with more profitable lemon trees in 1950.

For Nichols, it was a very special piece of land.

"A half-mile either way, and stuff would freeze," he recalled. "But it set up on a little rise and we'd get a downdraft that would just chase the frost away."

Over the years, Nichols saw the value of farmland soar as high as $35,000 an acre. He also saw his land engulfed by the city. He had only to look at the smoke from his neighbors' barbecues to tell which way the winds blew.

Roy Helton saw it too.

Ernie Nichols' hired hand for most of his life, Helton and his family moved to the Nichols farm in 1960. That was when the orchard next door was carved into a subdivision called Ventura East. Later on, the orchards across Telegraph Road met the same end.

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