Conejo Rec and Parks scraps plan for Lang Ranch Park in Thousand Oaks

Study determines grading could jeopardize homes above the site

Source of this article: The Thousand Oaks Acorn, January 12, 2012

Plans to build a full-service park with a community center, six baseball diamonds and a wide range of amenities in the Lang Ranch neighborhood of Thousand Oaks are over.

Last Thursday, the Conejo Recreation and Park District board voted unanimously to end its 10-year, $2.5-million effort to build the park after a geotechnical study revealed that CRPD would have to spend $10 million to $15 million just to get the hillside property up to stability safety standards.

STILL WAITING—A fading sign along Westlake Boulevard touts a community park to be built in the Lang Ranch area of Thousand Oaks. Last week, after receiving the final results of a geotechnical study, the park district abandoned its idea to build a park facility full of amenities. KYLE JORREY/Acorn Newspapers

The danger is caused by the fact that the plan area sits on what’s known as the Erbes Road Landslide Complex, an approximately 380-acre underground range littered with the remnants of a seismic event that occurred more than 10,000 years ago. Drilling tests conducted on the property revealed a slick layer of weakened clay only 3 inches thick but up to 120 feet below the surface, CRPD General Manager Jim Friedl said.

In order to safely dig up the clay bed and make the area stable enough to get grading permits, a giant earth buttress, more than 1,500 feet in length, would have to be built near the creek bed at the lowest part of the property, the study found. Friedl said constructing the buttress would require moving an estimated 1.5 million to 2 million cubic yards of dirt at a cost of at least $10 million—far more than the park district bargained for.

“That would eat up our capital projects budget for the next four or five years,” Friedl said.

Cutting losses

Presented with the results of the study and a recommendation to abandon the plan, the five-member CRPD board voted at its Jan. 5 meeting to cut its losses in regard to the Lang Ranch Community Park Master Plan.

“We just didn’t want to introduce a hazard into the neighborhood,” board chair Mark Jacobsen told the Acorn.

Instead, the park district will explore different, less intensive uses (e.g., improved trails, restrooms, a parking lot) for the 124-acre property bordered by Erbes Road, Avenida de Los Arboles and Westlake Boulevard.

“I don’t look at this (property) as just being open space; we need to have working open space so people don’t just have to look at the beauty of nature—they’re in it,” Jacobsen said.

Though park officials tried to put a positive spin on the plan’s demise by saying that the recreation needs of the Lang Ranch corridor could be met by improving current park facilities in the area, the newest member of the board, Ed Jones, said what others may have been thinking.

“It’s a sad turn of fate that we now find we have this property . . . that isn’t able to be used the way we thought it would be,” Jones said during the meeting.

“It’s a great disappointment that this seems to be rendered almost useless. I don’t disparage hiking and so forth, I love to do that . . . but it would have seemed to me that we could have had a little more for a community park for the good people of Lang Ranch than we’re now able to do. . . . I wish we had known the geological limits of this many years ago and not spent all the money. . . . It’s a great pity to me.”

In the 10 years since the plan was first discussed, CRPD has spent an estimated $2.5 million related to Lang Ranch Park, including $321,000 to complete the EIR and $808,000 on legal costs associated with battling a 2008 lawsuit filed by a group of Lang Ranch homeowners.

The two-year geotechnical study, released in November, cost an additional $800,000.

Friedl, who’s been with the park district for eight years, admitted it’s a tough pill to swallow.

“I wish we hadn’t had to spend that money to know what we now know, but there’s a cost to exploring opportunities and dreams. . . . Unfortunately, in this world that kind of information is expensive,” he said.

The founders’ dream

The dream of building a community park amid the rolling hillsides of Lang Ranch dates back to the city’s earliest years.

In 1968, shortly after the privately owned 2,585-acre Lang Ranch property was annexed into the city, planners creating the area’s specific plan identified the swath of land with breathtaking views of the valley below as a perfect spot for a park.

Nearly 35 years later, in 2002, after the land around it once occupied by grazing cattle had been filled with upscale homes, CRPD began taking steps to make the founders’ dream a reality.

Following two rounds of public input and the work of a focus group, the park district adopted the Lang Ranch Community Park Master Plan in 2003.

The plan called for six lighted baseball diamonds, tennis courts, park benches, playgrounds and picnic tables to be built in the first phase. A second phase would add walking trails, a community center and a multipurpose court that could be used for basketball or roller hockey.

John Short, president of Thousand Oaks Little League since 1999, helped develop the park’s master plan and served on the park board from 2008 to 2010. The league, which hoped to move its games from Colina Middle School to the new park, is saddened but will go on.

“It was going to be a spectacular facility, but in the end it didn’t happen,” said Short, noting that 80 percent of TOLL’s 500 families live in the Lang Ranch area.

The opponents

As much as the parents of Little Leaguers applauded the proposal, others detested it.

From the plan’s first mention, a group of residents living in the surrounding neighborhood fought tooth and nail to scale back the project because of concerns over traffic, noise, lighting and the risk of a landslide.

In 2008, the group filed a lawsuit challenging the plan’s environmental impact report and won. Among the judge’s stipulations were to reduce the size of the park (by 2 acres) and to properly protect an endangered plant—Braunton’s milkvetch—found on the property.

Members of the Lang Ranch Neighborhood Association—which brought the lawsuit—and their attorney, Alyse Lazar, attended the Jan. 5 meeting.

After the vote, the group quietly shared handshakes in the hall outside the boardroom. They commended CRPD for changing course and said they wanted to cooperate in coming up with an alternative use for the property.

“We want to work with the park district to do something on that property that would be a nice amenity to the city that everyone could use,” said Ron Siegel, one of the master plan’s most vocal opponents.

Siegel said Lang Ranch Neighborhood Association was never against building a park.

“We wanted a park for our kids also; it’s just this project wasn’t safe, and the size was wrong,” he said.

Lazar said the geotechnical report left no doubt about the risk of developing the property.

“We could foresee (homes) slipping down the hill, people getting hurt. If you read that report, it’s very scary,” she said.

In the coming months, the park district will gather input from the Lang Ranch community—including Lazar’s group—and the rest of the public about what the fate of the vacant property should be, Friedl said.

“Lang Ranch will still get their community park,” the general manager said. “It just might not be the level of a park we wanted, but that’s okay.”

Lang Ranch Park timeline

1968 Privately-owned Lang Ranch is annexed into the city; a 150-acre site is identified for a future park

1986 A judge stipulates that the Lang Ranch Company must dedicate more than 850 acres to various public entities

2002 CRPD forms a focus group to come up with a plan for the park

2003 The park district board adopts the Lang Ranch Community Park Master Plan

2006 Environmental impact report is prepared

2008 A lawsuit is filed in court by a group of neighbors challenging the EIR

2009 A judge rules in favor of the plaintiff and orders changes to the plan

2010 A geotechnical study of the property begins

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