Ex-Owner Jousts With City Over Motel : Oxnard: Bertha Ochoa calls the Lemon Tree one of the city's last sources of low-income housing, but police call it a center of drug activity.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Oxnard's effort to eliminate what police describe as the center of drug activity in the downtown area has met with a small snag: Bertha Ochoa.

The former owner of the Lemon Tree Motel was arrested Monday for defying a court order that bans her from entering the 25-year-old motel, which the city has acquired under eminent domain proceedings.

Ochoa was released by police on her own recognizance and returned to the motel to spend the night with her daughter. On Tuesday city officials and police ordered Ochoa to leave, saying she had been inciting tenants against the city. Threatened with a second arrest, Ochoa left the motel voluntarily.

City officials call it a small victory in their effort to eliminate a continuing source of headaches. Police consider the Lemon Tree Motel a source of drug activity.

But Ochoa said she will not give up. She said that her arrest on Monday violated her civil rights and vowed to appeal the city's eminent domain decision to a federal court.

Ochoa said she has lived in the motel for years but has been forced to leave without the same 90-day eviction notice sent by the city to other tenants.

"We are not in Russia or Cuba. They cannot treat us this way," Ochoa said as two Oxnard police officers looked on.

Peter Kuetzing, a lawyer representing the city of Oxnard, said Ochoa was warned last week that if she did not leave the motel by Monday she would be arrested. Ochoa was never a tenant and the city acted within the law by arresting her, he said.

Kuetzing, a specialist in eminent domain law, said a private building manager hired by the city to operate the motel decided Tuesday that Ochoa was interfering in the operation of the building. Police were told to arrest Ochoa if she tries to enter the building.

Ochoa was arrested Monday on suspicion of entering a building after being banned from the site by court order, a misdemeanor violation, police said. She was released on her own recognizance later that day, police said.

Ochoa and the city's Redevelopment Department have been engaged for several months in a bitter dispute over the motel. The city contends that the motel is the center of drug deals and prostitution and plans to demolish the aging building to make way for a parking lot as part of a large downtown redevelopment project.

Lt. Stan Myers said police consider the Lemon Tree Motel the center of drug activity in downtown Oxnard.

"It's no secret that the motel is a center for criminal activity," he said.

Police said they made seven arrests at the motel on Monday night. Most of the arrests were drug-related, police said.

Ochoa denied that the tenants are involved in criminal activity and said city officials have been engaged in a "political conspiracy" to demolish the motel. She said the motel is one of the city's last sources of low-income housing.

Ochoa and several tenants said if the building is demolished many tenants will be homeless. The city is required by law to find affordable housing for each tenant before the motel is demolished.

Earlier this year, Ochoa filed for bankruptcy in an effort to delay the city from taking possession of the motel. But in June a bankruptcy judge lifted the stay and ruled that the city could take possession of the property.

Last week, a Ventura County Superior Court judge approved a request by the city that allowed the city to remove and ban Ochoa from the building, Kuetzing said.

City officials have offered Ochoa $795,000 for the building but Ochoa has said the amount is too low and has vowed to appeal the price in court. Kuetzing said the matter may ultimately be decided by a jury.

Meanwhile, the city has hired Myers and Associates, a private management firm, to run the motel until the city relocates all the tenants.

The city's redevelopment department has also ordered four Oxnard police officers to patrol the motel to prevent any violence, Myers said.

Ochoa, however, said the officers, who have been stationed at the motel since Monday afternoon, have been harassing the tenants. Arturo Munoz, 30, said he was arrested Monday for drinking a beer in his room.

Myers said he was not sure what arrests have been made at the motel, but he denied that tenants had been harassed.

Kuetzing said the city has the right to have police protect city property.

"The city is the landlord and as landlord the city has the same right as any other landlord," he said.

But Ochoa responded: "The police shouldn't be involved in a civil matter. They should be chasing criminals."

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