A month ago, it was a Trojan horse, but now the Oxnard City Council sees an offer of free land for a university site as a knight in shining armor.
In November, one Oxnard City Council member said the strings-attached offer by Ag Land Services of 100 acres for a California State University center smacked of “getting into bed with a developer.” Another derided the proposal as “a pressure job,” designed to force Oxnard into allowing construction on prime agricultural lands.
Some council members worried that the proposed campus at Gonzales Road and Victoria Avenue would increase traffic on Victoria, already the busiest road in unincorporated Ventura County. Others fretted about the possibility of campus-connected development increasing density in the city’s upscale northwestern corner.
But last week, those reservations abruptly disappeared. In a move that even surprised an Ag Land official, the council voted to shift its preference for the Cal State site from a parcel at the proposed Ormond Beach resort area to the Ag Land lemon grove.
The 11-hour decision breathed new life into a proposal that both Oxnard and Cal State had previously discounted. Cal State representatives indicated last month that the Taylor Ranch outside Ventura would be the site that trustees would probably choose in January. They reportedly were troubled by problems at the Ormond Beach site that Oxnard then preferred and had no indication from Oxnard officials that they would look favorably on the Ag Land site.
But a month--and promises by Ag Land to help pay for improvements in roads serving Oxnard--has made all the difference. The Somis company would be the only one of the three property owners in the running who would donate a site to Cal State. In return, Ag Land would receive rezoning and other concessions from Oxnard that would enable development of a neighboring 180 acres that it also owns.
The city also would benefit from the complex agreement, say city and company officials. Under a compromise that would give new meaning to making lemonade of lemons, City Council members said they would support the Ag Land site if the company would help foot the bill for improving the heavily congested Victoria Avenue link with the 101 Freeway in Ventura.
“We’ve got an existing problem and no apparent means to fix it,” Councilman Michael Plisky later explained, summing up sentiments about Victoria Avenue congestion. “Along comes Ag Land and their plans to develop a university. We can have a better way of life here as a result.”
A majority of the council apparently agrees. Council members have expressed support for annexing the proposed university center site, an essential step because county guidelines restrict growth outside city boundaries. The city also would require that developers of the 180-acre parcel not exceed the five-houses-per-acre density of the northwest area.
“If we plan carefully,” Plisky said, “we can have our cake and eat it too.”
Whether Oxnard will have any cake at all may be determined as soon as university trustees convene in January. They are to sit in closed session during the meeting, which starts Jan. 12, to weigh the merits of the three sites.
In the meantime, Ventura County’s Local Agency Formation Commission, which would have to approve the annexation of any of the three proposed sites, is preparing an evaluation of each site’s agricultural viability, availability of services, zoning status and attractiveness to developers, said LAFCO executive officer Robert L. Braitman. Trustees requested the report and will use it in their deliberations, he said.
Under the plan, Ag Land would give Cal State the 80-acre plot of lemon trees and the money to buy 20 more acres on adjoining land.
Scene Is Serene
On a recent morning, the lemon grove was, predictably, tranquil.
The rooftops of the city’s newest and most exclusive subdivisions lay within sight to the east. To the west, workers waded waste-deep in celery plants and nursery flowers. Among the trees, a ladder rested lazily against a spindly trunk as though someone had begun to pick fruit, noted its greenish tinge and thought better of it.
But the tranquility dissolved on nearby Victoria Avenue, which would be congested even more by a Cal State campus and the proposed development linked to it. Cars whizzed by to the two-lane Santa Clara Bridge, which city traffic engineers blame for bottlenecks because an estimated 28,000 trips are made on it each day. Two miles north of the bridge, motorists face an inevitable jam at Victoria’s link with the Ventura Freeway, Ventura’s most heavily traveled intersection.
Ventura would like to see the interchange upgraded, but funds are not available, said the city’s traffic engineer, Nazir Lalani. The county’s plans call for widening Victoria south of Olivas Park Drive, first to four lanes and then, by 2010, to 10 lanes. But, again, funds have yet to be budgeted, said Steve Manz, assistant traffic engineer for the county.
The campus is expected to generate 10,450 trips daily, according to a recently released engineering report commissioned by the City of Ventura in its quest to secure the expansion. The Oxnard council took such projections to heart when it denied support Nov. 24 for the proposed Ag Land donation.
The rejection was no surprise. In May, the council had vetoed a 185-acre airport business park south of the Ag Land property because of the added congestion it was expected to bring to Victoria Avenue.
On Dec. 22, however, the council reversed itself and sided with Ag Land, which farms and sells agricultural land. Ag Land Vice President Dave O. White attributed the council’s change of heart to a better understanding of his company’s proposal.
“We had just barely had time to get together our proposal for the state and hadn’t had the time to explain ourselves to the city,” he said.
White said the package had been hastily thrown together in the wake of stalemated negotiations between university officials and Lusk Co., whose 110-acre site near Ventura Harbor had been singled out for the campus last year.
In response to a call in October for new site proposals, White said, he and a partner bought 132 acres along Gonzales Road for $5 million. At first, they considered donating just 20 acres toward the proposed 100-acre but gradually, he said, “we saw that the only way to do it was to put up the whole 100 acres that the state has asked for.”
Ag Land has since acquired more land north of the proposed campus site, which would be sold for upscale housing, a 10- to 15-acre commercial complex and, if requested by the university or city, apartments, he said.
White calculates the value of the donation at $40,000 an acre for a total of $4 million. He said he believes that rezoning the property will increase its market value to at least $60,000 an acre.
In the month since the council’s first action, White said, he took pains to explain his company’s position. Still, he later conceded that the Dec. 22 council reversal “surprised me a little.”
Council members said they were reacting to a report from an Oxnard delegation that had met with university officials. According to the delegation, university officials, who are playing their cards close to their vest, hold a “more favorable” view of the Ag Land site than the Ormond Beach site.
By endorsing it, they reasoned, Oxnard has a better chance at nabbing the coveted campus, which will serve 2,000 to 3,000 students.
University officials say the campus, which eventually may become a four-year university, is expected not only to bring prestige to its host community but to exert an “economic ripple effect” of between $2 and $4 for every dollar spent there by students or the state.
The university officials reportedly had reservations about the Ormond Beach site’s accessibility and the availability of such services as sewer and power. They also expressed concerns about the project’s timetable and feared it might not even be built. Although Cal State officials have said they hope to open the expanded University Center in five years, the Ormond Beach development--and the roads, sewer and power connections associated with it--may not be completed for 10 years, said City Councilman Manuel Lopez, a member of the delegation.
By contrast, Ag Land officials point out that their property is just blocks from Patterson Road, where city services already feed expanding residential developments near the River Ridge Golf Course.
They also note that Gonzales Road, one of the two roads serving the site, already has been widened for most of its length, and that the remaining stretch would probably be widened by any developer building in the area.
Physical problems also might be encountered at Taylor Ranch. Ventura’s engineering report said that “significant on- and off-site infrastructure” is required at the site. It also noted only “limited opportunities” for access by a two-lane road, and the necessity of upgrading freeway ramps to accommodate university traffic.
The location of Ag Land’s property is its strongest asset, say city officials. Lopez contended that the Victoria Avenue site, midway between Oxnard and Ventura, makes it a logical compromise in a battle between the cities for the campus. However, such agricultural interests as the California Plant Co., a nursery across Victoria from the proposed site, are almost certain to oppose the Victoria site.
Looking into the future, Donald L. Egger, general manager at the nursery, said: “When you get houses next door, they don’t like seeing trucks coming in and start pressuring you to landscape. Urban sprawl in this direction doesn’t suit our interests.”
All three sites share the disadvantage of being on county property zoned for agriculture, and would have to be annexed and rezoned in a lengthy process. But Oxnard city officials argued that Taylor Ranch’s location atop a coastal bluff opens it up to the scrutiny of yet another governmental agency, the California Coastal Commission.
Although the Ventura County Farm Bureau, an association of growers, does not have an opinion on the site of the campus, according to its executive director, Rex Laird, the group generally opposes changes in existing land uses.
“Whether it’s a jail facility or a sludge facility or a college, you’re going to change the character of the land” by building on it, he said.
However, he did say that his organization would be more likely to oppose the campus at either of the two Oxnard sites than at the Ventura site.
“From a purely agricultural standpoint, there is no comparison between Taylor Ranch and the other locations,” said Laird. “The ground on Taylor Ranch is nowhere near as productive.”