This June 6, voters in the state of California primary elections will be tasked with more than the responsibility of choosing gubernatorial candidates or weighing in on local educational issues. They'll be making the final determination on whether Centex can develop its controversial Fagan Canyon project in Santa Paula, Calif., which has been mired in the approval process for three years.
In an effort to rally support for the risky, city-backed initiative that leaves the ultimate decision to voters, Centex Project Manager Rick Bianchi is acting much like any well-schooled politician. He's shaking hands, kissing babies, and manning phones at the project's Home Finding Center-turned-campaign headquarters while driving his staff and supporters to provide continuous community education about Measure E6—the Fagan Canyon Project Approval Initiative.
“It's going to be tough, but we'll be running right up to the finish line,” says Bianchi. “We've all worked too hard to craft a project that's on the good side of Santa Paula, and we won't go down without a fight.”
Bianchi has traveled a long and winding road to the project's ultimate fate. Imbedded in a major citrus agricultural area and surrounded by greenbelts, Santa Paula is rich in natural resources and beauty. But with a population of 30,000, the town contains only 9,000 dwelling units, and in many cases, resident families were doubling and tripling up. As a result of Ventura County's infamous restrictions, and because geographic constraints had stunted its opportunity to grow, the community was struggling with a deep list of needs and challenges.
So in November of 2002, when Centex tied up 1,700 acres of developable land in the region, management instantly recognized that a “procedural” approach to this project would ensure failure. “We needed to take the time to put a face on this big name we carry and to ultimately become locally loved,” says Bianchi.
Over three years, Centex worked with the community and town council through a patient series of workshops and planning charrettes. And in December of 2005, that patience resulted in the Santa Paula city council's unanimous vote to approve the Fagan Canyon project, which would allow Centex to begin building 2,155 homes with diverse housing, schools, and other amenities in a plan crafted from a community input.
But in early 2006, the group We CARE (Citizens Advocating Responsible Expansion), gathered 1,100 signatures opposing the city council's vote. The effort was enough to allow the protestors to place a referendum on the ballot, setting the stage to potentially overturn the city's approval.
Bianchi, along with the city council members and supporters of the project, expressed concerns that the wording in the We CARE petition was misleading and presented “a one-sided look at the development issue.”
So in March with only one day to spare, the Santa Paula City Council mounted a political counter attack of sorts. In a last-minute maneuver, the council voted to rescind all of its approvals of the project. “It was effective,” says Bianchi. “When they rescinded all the approvals, the referendum became a moot point. It was a dead issue, but unfortunately, so was the project.”
Immediately, the council then unanimously voted to place its own approval initiative for Fagan Canyon on the June 6 ballot. The effect was basically the same: the approval or disapproval for the new community just north of the city now lies solely in the hands of the voters. But, what changed was the way that the ballot initiative was ultimately presented—residents will be voting on a measure drafted by the city. “It's been compiled with every contract, document, and agreement rolled into a legal initiative,” says Bianchi. “We wanted to lay it all out there for everyone to see.”
As BIG BUILDER went to press in mid-May, Bianchi's polls showed the protestors and advocates to be running in a neck-and-neck race. And, if Mandate E6 fails on June 6th, law mandates that Centex wait a full 12 months before representing the project for a new round of approvals. “We've been fishing in this hole for three years,” says Bianchi when asked to speculate on Centex's strategy if the initiative doesn't pass. “If we can't land a fish, it's time to find another hole.”