Judge Backs Ojai Valley Golf Resort
A Superior Court judge Monday refused to stop development of an exclusive Ojai Valley golf resort, ruling that the private links would use far less drinking water than the landowner has available.
After final arguments that stretched over three court days, Judge William A. Peck decided against the Environmental Coalition of Ventura County, which argued that allowing the Farmont Corp. to develop the site would violate county water laws.
Peck said Farmont, which owns 2,000 acres on the hillside, could legally use five times the amount of water a golf course needs if it opted instead to plant citrus groves on the property.
Historically, the land has used 407 acre-feet of water a year, but the company has water rights of up to 2,000 acre-feet each year.
The golf course, however, would need only 236 acre-feet annually, and conditions in its approval limit the water usage to the 407 acre-foot average, Peck said in explaining his ruling. An acre-foot of water is 326,000 gallons, roughly the amount a family of four uses in a year.
“To deny a project which uses less water than its present (land) use because of an ordinance enacted to save water seems to me to make no sense,” the judge said.
The coalition sued last year after the County Board of Supervisors refused to overturn the county Planning Commission’s unanimous approval of the resort, a 200-acre private club nestled in the foothills along California 150.
The lawsuit claimed that Farmont was wrongly given permission to use domestic water to irrigate the golf course until 2001, instead of using reclaimed or treated sewer water as called for in the ordinance.
But staff planners recommended that the golf course be allowed because Farmont made numerous concessions and mitigations, including an agreement to supply up to 200 acre-feet of reclaimed water for irrigation by 2001.
The developers also agreed to give up water rights to more than 1,500 acre-feet annually and to set aside 1,650 acres of its land as permanent open space.
But coalition members said the water policy--adopted in 1990 at the height of the drought to prioritize water uses--requires that golf courses use reclaimed water to irrigate the tees, greens and fairways.
Peck said the law states that golf courses must use reclaimed water for irrigation. But he ruled that the intent of the policy is to save water, which he said the Farmont project would do.
In making his ruling, however, Peck urged county planners to draft a more flexible water policy.
“This is torture,” he said. “It’s taken me a while to work my way through it. That’s why I’m telling the county: Please amend this ordinance.”
Lindsay F. Nielson, the attorney representing the Farmont Corp., said that even if Peck had sided with the coalition, the project would still move forward.
“The worst case would have been to redraft the (water) ordinance,” he said.
Nielson said he was confident that the judge would support the project because it saves water and permanently sets aside a vast stretch of hillside.
“The Planning Commission, the Board of Supervisors and now a trial court all say (Farmont) is copacetic,” said Nielson, adding that the course could open by late next year or early 1996.
Attorney Philip A. Seymour, who represents the environmentalists, said he would recommend that his clients appeal the decision.
“I think we would prevail on appeal, but it’s a matter of cost and priorities,” he said outside court. “The language of the policy is very explicit.”
Seymour also lost his argument that a 19,000-square-foot clubhouse should not be allowed on the site. He said that it is too big and that it will create traffic and noise problems not allowed under the open-space zoning, but Peck disagreed.
“A lot of what goes on at a golf course is what happens before and after the game,” Peck said. “I don’t think anyone can build a golf course without expecting all the amenities.”
Neil Moyer, president of the environmental coalition, said his group would probably file an appeal, which must be done within 60 days.