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No Quick Ruling on Dredging, Judge Says : Ventura Keys: He plans to take his time deciding who should pay the most for the project. Meanwhile a possible settlement is reached.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A Kern County judge, who listened to five hours of arguments on who should pay to dredge the Ventura Keys, said he will take his time reaching a decision because of the enormity of the task.

Three attorneys representing Keys residents argued that the city of Ventura acted illegally in 1991 when it decided to assess the 299 homeowners an average of $1,733 annually to remove the silt from their back-yard canals.

Central to the homeowners’ argument is that the silt is caused by drainage from throughout Ventura. Since the entire city is causing the problem, all Ventura residents should share the cost of the dredging, property owners say.

The attorney for the city responded that the homeowners stood to benefit more than other Ventura residents from the dredging, and consequently should foot the bulk of the bill. While some may say the arrangement is unfair, it is nonetheless legal and must be upheld by the court, attorney Daniel S. Hentschke said.

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Nearly 200 people, most of them elderly Keys residents, attended the hearing.

The disdain residents hold for the assessment was evident when Hentschke began his argument, and several of the homeowners made such loud derogatory comments in response to the city’s attorney that Superior Court Judge Sidney Chapin admonished them to be quiet.

Chapin is hearing the case because all Ventura County judges disqualified themselves.

Meanwhile, as attorneys debated the law, across town a negotiating team announced it had hammered out a possible settlement.

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For the plan to take effect, however, it must be approved by all of the nearly 200 homeowners who have sued the city over the dredging issue.

The proposal calls for the property owners to pay $685 per household for the dredging, with a guarantee from the city that the fee will increase by no more than $64 per year.

In addition, the city would pay the 1992 dredging costs and retire a 1991 bond issue. Those costs had been partly covered by assessments on the residents.

In return, the residents would agree to drop all lawsuits over the dredging, under the proposed settlement.

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“Because it is a compromise, it is not precisely what every person wants,” said Peter Cannon, a negotiator representing the property owners. “But we wouldn’t be taking this back (to the litigants) unless we thought it was good.”

The proposed settlement was presented Friday to all of the residents. It must be accepted or rejected within 45 days.

At the court hearing, attorney Terry Bird compared the waterways at the Keys to public streets and said the city is responsible for keeping them free of silt. It makes no more sense to charge Keys residents a special assessment to dredge the Keys than it does to charge other property owners to remove dirt from the streets in front of their homes, said Bird, who represents the owners of 160 Keys homes.

The law allows special assessment districts to be formed only if the work to be done significantly improves the property for those who must pay for it, Bird argued.

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“It is maintenance, not an improvement,” Bird said of the dredging. “Rather than being benefited, the residents of the Keys are burdened.”

Attorney Donald M. Adams Jr., who represents 34 property owners, said his clients were willing to pay their fair share of the dredging costs, but he suggested the city’s charge is way too high. The current assessment “far outweighs the benefit to the homeowners” and was “foisted down our throats,” Adams said.

Hentschke, the city’s lawyer, emphasized that when Ventura officials accepted the waterways as public property in 1964, it was with the understanding that Keys residents would be charged for removing the silt. Everyone knew the problem would recur because of the geography of the land, Hentschke said.

“The channel was going to fill up--we knew that in 1964,” he said.

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Hentschke said that Keys homeowners are being assessed only 75% of the dredging costs in recognition that all Ventura residents are allowed use of the waterways.

Keys residents, however, stand to benefit uniquely from the dredging, Hentschke said, because only they are allowed to dock their boats in the water.

Judge Chapin, who posed several questions to the attorneys during the hearing, gave no estimate how long it would take him to reach a decision.


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