A festering dispute between residents and a developer over a proposed apartment complex illustrates the growing pains being experienced in Valencia, which is rapidly changing from a sleepy suburb into a major residential and business community.

At issue is the redevelopment of a nine-hole golf course, whose owner National Golf Properties Inc. wants to sell the site to multifamily housing developer AvalonBay Communities Inc. The latter wants to turn the course into a 216-unit apartment complex but the whole agreement turns on getting the land rezoned from open space to medium- or high-density residential.

And that's where opposition from the neighbors comes in.

"We live on Masters Cup Way and Player Drive, not View of the Apartment Way," said Craig Humphries, president of the Valencia Fairways homeowners association, a group of 310 townhouse owners whose property directly borders the nine-hole course in question. "The premium reason why our units were more expensive than down the street is because we had a view."

Heavy opposition to project

The nine-hole golf course, known as the "Chica" course, is part of a large neighborhood called Vista Valencia, which includes the 18-hole Vista Valencia Executive Golf Course and a variety of neighborhoods with single-family houses and townhouses. In all, the area contains five separate homeowners' groups, all of which oppose the redevelopment plans for Chica.

The townhomes that border the Chica course, built in the early '70s and refurbished after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, to the tune of $33 million, sell for at least 5 to 10 percent more than other Valencia townhouses, Humphries said.

The homeowners say any change in the view would affect their home values, and emotions are running high over AvalonBay's plans.

At a recent Valencia Fairways board meeting that was opened to the public, hundreds of residents stood united in opposition, sometimes shouting angrily, as representatives of American Golf, which manages the two Vista Valencia courses, and AvalonBay officials talked about the possible sale. National Golf is a self-administered real estate investment trust that acquires and owns golf course properties primarily in the United States, all but four of which are managed by American Golf.

An early proposal for converting the Chica course by AvalonBay outlines development on 50 percent of the approximately 20-acre site. The deal has been stalled while the buyer and seller take the pulse of the community. AvalonBay is unlikely to buy the course unless it has some assurance that the city would rezone it for apartments. Before that can happen, the city of Santa Clarita must hold a series of public hearings. And at this point, the proposal is not popular with the community.

"The community is not happy; they have sent a lot of letters and petitions," said Jeff Lambert, director of planning and building services for the city of Santa Clarita. "That (proposed rezoning) is a big change, and we don't have to allow it."

Despite community objections, AvalonBay Development Director Phil Simmons said his company and National Golf have kept lines of communication open and the deal is not dead. "We are still talking," he said last week.

From the developer's standpoint, the proposed apartment complex would actually benefit the nearby townhouses because it would serve as a buffer between them and the Golden State (5) Freeway, cutting down on road noise. The development would also include a park-like setting on at least half the acreage, Simmons said.

He added that AvalonBay's envisioned apartments would be high-end or "luxury," which attracts a higher caliber of renters.

National Golf officials did not return calls to its headquarters in Santa Monica. Representatives of American Golf said at the community meeting that the Chica course has been a money loser for years, so another use is needed for the land.

Old, unpopular course

With only 50 to 70 golfers a day who pay $10 to $13 to play the "Chica" course, it does not break even, they said. Further, the larger Vista Valencia course located in the same area has become the more popular of the two.

The problems at the Chica course run counter to the overall trend, which has seen rising popularity of golf courses particularly those in the North County region. But the aging Chica course is small and in poor shape, and attracts an element that some locals and course executives have accused of sneaking on without paying.

Managers say the significant investment required to update the course with a new irrigation system and other improvements would not make sense given all the competition.

"The community has not accepted the inevitability of shutting down the course," conceded Simmons, who added that his company will not "cram anything down the throats of the community."

Meanwhile, the nine-hole Chica course remains open for business and, according to Warren Leary, who manages the course for American Golf, "Nothing was done when we had the meeting and nothing has been done up to this point."

Humphries said the homeowners have been mulling over different ideas about how to make the course profitable. They want to open up a "dialogue" with National Golf.

Their biggest fear, Humphries said, is that the five homeowners associations as a collective group could be facing a David-vs.-Goliath situation with the corporate National Golf and American Golf.

"We are just a few homeowners associations and this is American Golf, owners of hundreds of golf courses," said Humphries.

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