After listening to the passionate pleas of more than 100 residents, the city's Planning Commission voted Tuesday to deny a developer's request to build 228 homes on an east end lemon orchard.
The decision startled and delighted neighbors who crammed City Hall to speak out against the proposal by Orange-based Beazer Homes, saying it would further aggravate school overcrowding and destroy the city's quiet, rural character by paving it with tract homes.
"I am ecstatic," resident Larry Cardoza said after the vote. "I thought Beazer was so far along in the process. I admire the Planning Commission for having open ears."
Beazer Homes has 10 days to appeal the decision to the City Council. Beazer representative Tom Grable said his company would be discussing an appeal this week. The company has been working with the city to develop the proposed subdivision for two years.
But in voting against the project, Planning Commissioner Ted Temple said Ventura's chief planning guide never envisioned the growth-related problems the city is now facing.
"I don't think the Comprehensive Plan envisioned that we'd have the population we have right now," he said of the city's current 104,000 population figure. "And I don't think the Comprehensive Plan envisioned the school overcrowding we have right now."
Put simply, the proposal to build 228 houses on an east end lemon orchard could not have come at a worse time.
The school board just agreed to bus hundreds of students out of a crowded eastern Ventura school. The city has declared a yearlong moratorium on approving new homes. And the voters made it clear in November how they feel about turning orchards into housing tracts.
On Tuesday night, residents filled council chambers to urge the Planning Commission to reject the proposal to build two-story houses at the southwest corner of Kimball and Telegraph roads.
The development would result in more children being bused to schools in west Ventura, they argued.
And the construction of yet another east end housing tract would clog streets with increased traffic while gradually chipping away at the community's rural character, residents said.
"If they keep going the way they are going, it will be all asphalt and cement," said resident Cecil Black, whose Harding Street home is next to the site.
Hoover Street resident Lisa Forbes told the Planning Commission that the project would harm, not benefit, Ventura.
"I don't see how we are going to let another project go up," Forbes said. "Let's work with the problems we have now before we build more houses."
Two years ago, the City Council gave Beazer Homes the right to develop houses on the 42-acre orchard during Ventura's biennial housing allocation process--long before the moratorium or the ballot measure last November limiting development on farmland.
But a development agreement, designs and permits must be approved by the City Council before the project can go forward.
Just last week, the City Council decided to postpone for one year the housing allocation process because the city's population is exceeding set limits. Developers now have to wait until 1997 to ask permission to build new housing projects.
Two weeks ago, the Ventura Unified School District approved a short-term plan to ease overcrowding at Buena High School by busing 185 students to Ventura High.
In fact, as planning commissioners heard testimony on the Beazer project Tuesday at City Hall, the school district's board of education met in a separate room down the hall to discuss long-term strategies to deal with overcrowding.
"It is very interesting how this is converging at the same time," city planner Bill Hatcher said.
City staff members recommended that the project be approved because they said it is consistent with planning guidelines and because the land has been designated for residential development since the 1960s.
"This project is consistent with the General Plan," said Grable of Beazer. "It was not designed to remain agricultural land. . . . It was presumed development would occur here." But emotions surrounding the proposal run deep. And the debate over building more houses in the city's east end--whether allocated or not--was highly charged Tuesday night.
"There are some big issues," Planning Commissioner Sandy Smith said before the meeting Tuesday. "Schools are a big issue."
In an effort to relieve the impact on local schools, Beazer agreed to pay about $1 more per square foot than a state fee requires.
The maximum school facility fee of $1.72 per square foot is not enough to solve the problem, school officials said. So Beazer agreed to increase the amount to $2.70 per square foot, which would generate $400,000 for the school district.
But developer "mitigation" fees are not going to solve the problem, some residents said. And concerns such as traffic and the height of the proposed two-story residences warranted the project's denial, they said.
"Throwing more money at the problem is not going solve it," resident Matt Capritto said. "My hope is that this project can be stopped now."
"They are going to funnel a lot of the traffic through our tract," said Black, who has lived next to the orchard for 30 years. "The traffic division says as long as they put a signal at Harding it will be safe. We don't agree with that."
Black circulated 500 fliers before the meeting urging residents to attend. He said the development would do more than just erect big houses within view from his backyard. He said it would turn Ventura into a quasi-Orange County, checkered with tract homes.
And residents at Tuesday's meeting agreed.
"When we first moved here, it was all lemons," longtime resident Shirley Williamson said. "Now it is all brick walls. One more is about all we can stand. They killed the city on the east end."