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Strange Birds on the Hillsides: Impacts of the Unpredictable (Black Swans)

What The Developer Didn't See Coming

We're used to seeing hawks, jays, tohees, even orioles, bluebirds and soaring vultures in Ventura hills. But water birds? Paddlers? I'm talking black swans. They were there, or at least what they represent was there.

Black swans stand for the unforeseeable events in life. They are unperceivable because we are used to seeing only white swans. When a black one shows up we can't see it. It does not register.

This was probably the outlook of Regent Properties when it first approached Ventura with a plan to cut and fill the face of the hillsides into a ledge for 55 upscale houses. They felt they had designed a very reasonable project with lots of amenities, but they knew they would have to override the rules for hillside development put in place by citizens years ago meant to stop such a plan.

The Hillside Management Program (HMP) calls for a soft footprint for any development on the hills: minimum cut and fill, minimum grading and steep slopes, keeping natural drainages and preserving the curves and natural character of these iconic natural features. Development? Yes. But regulated, environmentally sensitive, and in keeping with the character of the existing hillside homes nearby. None of this was in Regent’s plan.

Regent met stakeholders, assured the public at meetings, hired some local notables to push their plan, did extensive PR. What could go wrong? The gentle folks of sleepy Ventura should be ripe for this big time LA development, which promised to bring big time executives to perch on its hillsides, improving the place.

But then it happened. A black swan, the first one, showed up.

The public rose up like a red tailed hawk and swooped down on the plan with energy and accuracy. Some of the public was well versed in HMP policy, had two successful efforts to defeat dangerous and inappropriate hillside developments under their belts, and congregated on line and elsewhere to strategize about sending Regent packing. The public regarded the hills as a legacy that needed protection. And their beauty helped win our status as America’s number one city. Who needed upscale hillside wreckers?

It was clear that Regent had the city’s staff support, and some citizens and organizations we’re itching to get a large swathe of open space, offered to sweeten the pot. Many city notables saw dollar signs and lobbied the public hard. But Regent did not foresee the sophistication, intensity, and staying power of folks against this unsound plan The black swan of massive opposition appeared-–honking in full–throated rebellion.

Then the second black swan showed up.

The City Council passed the proposal on for EIR scrutiny, but then added ten--count them, ten—requirements of its own, which in their cumulative effect upheld the HMP. That was a key goal after all: make the developer follow the rules the citizens had put in place. What’s so hard about that?

This black swan was so unforeseeable that some in the public, and the press, and in city hall still don’t see it. The people won, at least round one. Then add on other regulations that will likely evolve from the EIR review of soils, traffic, water and other issues, and one might predict that Regent will have to revise their plan pretty drastically, or else pull up stakes.

Of course we will have to be diligent during the EIR process and keep our city staff and Council on track from preventing any departures from its worthy requirements.

And of course, we need to be aware that another black swan might show up, presenting either side with an unpredictable outcome, good or bad. At least now we in the public know that we may not be able to see what’s coming. Still, as Louis Pasteur would have it, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

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