A classic showdown pitting landowners' rights against the preservation of endangered wildlife is set to begin Thursday as owners of an undeveloped Oxnard subdivision at Ormond Beach square off with government officials in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.
The owners of the subdivision, which was planned in 1910, have sued Ventura County and the state of California for inundating their property to create a sanctuary for threatened wildlife.
But the Ventura County Flood Control Department and the California Department of Fish and Game say they have merely followed federal environmental regulations and are seeking to have the suit thrown out.
The suit alleges that the little-known subdivision--currently the site of a brackish lagoon--has no value because the agencies diverted water onto it from a nearby stream and several sewer drains.
The Ormond Beach wetlands are home to several federally protected species, including the tidewater goby fish, California least tern, western snowy plover and California brown pelican.
Yet the 40 owners of the never-developed housing tract--who include former Supervisor Thomas Laubacher, the Perkins family and other descendants of Ventura County pioneers--say their property was dry before government agencies turned it into a marsh.
Roger Sullivan, one of the attorneys representing the landowners, said his clients are asking for about $50,000 for each of the 62 submerged lots, or about $3.1 million.
"If they want to create a lagoon for endangered species, that's fine," Sullivan said. "But first they have to acquire my clients' property."
Also named in the suit, filed in Ventura County Superior Court in February, are the cities of Oxnard and Port Hueneme. But Sullivan said the main defendants are the state and the county, and the two cities will probably be released from the suit. The first hearing will take place June 28 in Ventura County Superior Court. A mediation conference is scheduled for June 22.
The dispute centers on a joint 1992 agreement involving the flood control department, fish and game department, Oxnard and Port Hueneme to stop the county's yearly practice of bulldozing an outlet for the drainage water to pass through to the sea.
The flood control department had always breached a sandbar separating the ocean from the lagoon so that the water would not accumulate and spill onto Halaco Engineering's aluminum smelting plant or other surrounding properties, said Alex Sheydayi, the county's deputy director of public works.
But the department agreed to stop the practice after environmentalists complained that the ebb and flow of the wetlands--which naturally occurs when the sandbar is breached by the ocean in winter--was being altered.
Now the lagoon has swelled, and surrounding landowners are complaining that by allowing the wetland to grow, the county has swallowed up their property and owes them money. However, environmentalists contend that the subdivision was the site of a natural wetland when it was parceled out in 1910 and should be restored.
"What [landowners] are saying is that by us not breaking the sandbar, we are allowing the water to build up on their property, and this is, in effect, a taking of their land," Sheydayi said. "They say that this is an inverse condemnation, and they want payment for it."
Bruce Finck, the attorney representing the county, said he is working to have the suit dismissed because Flood Control was merely complying with federal regulations to protect rare wildlife. Deputy state Atty. General Marsha Miller, who is representing the state, did not return phone calls.
Finck and Oxnard City Atty. Gary Gillig both said that some of the property in dispute is not part of the lagoon and has been swallowed up by shifting ocean currents.
"They've got a tough row to hoe, no matter what," Gillig said. "Their property is underwater, and that's part of making oceanfront investments. . . . Ocean currents can change dramatically."
But Laubacher, who owns three of the disputed lots, said the subdivision is clearly on land and under the lagoon. He said the property owners are only trying to recoup their families' investments, and have been fighting with about a dozen government agencies since 1981 to get some money for their submerged property.
Terry Nevins of the California Coastal Conservancy said she and a group of federal and state agencies tried to buy the lots from Laubacher and the other property owners several years ago, but the deal fell through because they asked for too much money.
"It's been very frustrating," Laubacher said. "We've gone through several city councils during this ordeal. We've tried to work with the agencies that oversee oceanfront property, but we haven't gotten anywhere."