Families Sue for Right to Develop Farmland : Courts: Owners of 297 acres along the Ventura Freeway say local governments have violated constitutional guarantees.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The owners of a large parcel of agricultural land along the Ventura Freeway have filed a lawsuit to force the city of Ventura and Ventura County to permit development of the prime acreage or pay the landowners $75 million in damages.

The farm families that own the 297-acre parcel between Harbor Boulevard and Olivas Park Drive sued on grounds that local governments have violated their property rights and other rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

"The litigation is part of an ongoing effort on the part of landowners and developers nationwide to establish their constitutional rights to use their property in a reasonable fashion," said Jeffrey Thomas, an attorney representing the landowners.

The $75-million figure in the lawsuit, filed this week in Ventura County Superior Court, represents a private appraisal of the land, he said.

Ventura County officials said they have not had a chance to study the lawsuit. "This is the first I've heard of any (lawsuit) dealing with that parcel," said Frank Sieh, litigation supervisor for the Ventura County counsel's office.

Officials in the Ventura city attorney's office could not be reached for comment.

Efforts have been made to develop the farm property since 1978, including a proposal to turn much of it into a site for a four-year state university. But at every turn, the landowners and the developer have been rebuffed by the city and the county.

"In terms of aesthetics, that property is probably the most striking piece of agricultural land within the Ventura area," said Bob Braitman, former head of the Local Agency Formation Commission, which regulates development in Ventura County. "It defines the Ventura community as still agricultural."

Braitman, now a private consultant, recalled opposing the parcel's development in 1981. He said his view has been supported within the past five years by both the general plans of the city of Ventura and the county. The general plans have, in turn, been certified by the California Coastal Commission.

"There is unanimity that this land remain in local agriculture," Braitman said.

Thomas, an attorney with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, represents two parties: Ventura Alpha Ranches Corp., formed in 1978 by five families who have owned the Ventura parcel for decades, and the Lusk Co. of Irvine, a major land developer that owns 40% of Ventura Alpha.

The farm families, which raise row crops on the land, have been encountering increasingly difficult economic times and want to cash out their holdings, said Don Steffensen, executive vice president of the Lusk Co.

"They would like to be able to see the development of the property and enjoy some of the profits," he said.

The parcel is in an unincorporated pocket surrounded by the city of Ventura.

The county has gone on record declaring that it will not allow development unless the land is annexed into the city, because the county's general plan declares that development should occur in incorporated areas.

For its part, the city has said it will not annex the land until its General Plan allows development of the parcel.

To the consternation of the farm families, the city of Ventura's General Plan also calls for the parcel to be placed into a greenbelt. The open space plan is part of an agreement to be entered into by the cities of Ventura and Oxnard, the county and LAFCO.

It was the pending greenbelt plan that finally triggered the lawsuit.

The lawsuit states that at the time Ventura Alpha was formed--in 1978--the land was zoned for agricultural use. But the suit contends that the city of Ventura's General Plan provided for reconsideration of the zone in 1990.

Indeed, Thomas said, "the site was favored" for a four-year university by the Ventura City Council. The council adopted a resolution formally supporting the site for a Cal State campus and then forwarded the resolution to the governor.

"This tells us that the city did not consider preserving this land for agriculture as a compelling need," Thomas said.

Then, according to the lawsuit, the Ventura City Council in 1989 adopted a new General Plan that restricted the parcel to agricultural use through 2010.

Steffensen said the Lusk Co., which has developed a number of communities in California, envisions a mix of residential and business construction on the parcel.

"We are confident that, once the facts of the case are heard in a court of law, we will be allowed to proceed with the development of our property," Steffensen said.

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