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Santa Paula Expected to Embrace Growth Plan

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This rural city could buck the trend in Ventura County tonight by approving a plan to quadruple its area, opening thousands of acres for possible development.

People on both sides of the issue expect the Santa Paula City Council to go forward with the proposal.

Despite popular campaigns against farmland development in the rest of the county, opposition to the massive expansion here has surfaced only recently.

Last week the Ventura County Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee criticized the city’s plan, which would gobble up about 650 acres of rich farmland. And an ad hoc citizens committee has pointed out that the 9,570 acres the city wants is only a little smaller than the 12,000-acre Newhall Ranch project that is so sharply criticized by local officials.

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“It’s definitely urban sprawl,” said Jesse Ornelas, a spokesman for the LAFCO Citizen Action Committee. “It’s going to create a Santa Paula that’s totally different from the Santa Paula we know and love.”

The real battle is expected later this year when the city presents its plans to the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission, the agency that determines community boundaries. During an informal presentation last summer, LAFCO commissioners expressed several concerns, including the encroachment into 567 acres of greenbelt east of the city.

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Although limiting sprawl has become the county’s top political issue, Councilman Jim Garfield believes the climate is right for Santa Paula to grow.

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“Better than any other community in this county, we controlled growth,” he said. “Who knows what LAFCO will do when it gets to that point? But here locally, what I would like to see is let it pass as written.”

The plan would more than quadruple the city’s 2,908-acre area. As many as 3,600 homes could be built in six expansion areas surrounding the city--plus three hotels with accompanying golf courses, a trio of schools, and commercial and industrial space. The proposal updates the city’s General Plan, essentially a blueprint for future growth.

But officials argue that the proposal should be viewed in the context of a city that has shunned the kind of paving-over of open space seen elsewhere in the county. Santa Paula hasn’t substantially enlarged its boundaries in a quarter-century; only about 5% of the city is now available for housing and commercial projects.

That cautious attitude toward growth has contributed to the relative lack of controversy surrounding the General Plan, said Peter Cosentini, the new city manager.

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“Historically speaking, Santa Paula has not grown significantly, and I think the greater consensus of the community is, it’s time,” he said. “I think the General Plan strikes a sensitivity that brings a balance to the agriculture question.”

Not everyone agrees.

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The county’s Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee is most concerned about the proposed expansion into the greenbelt east of the city and farmlands along South Mountain Road. The group, consisting of five farmers, was established two years ago to advise the county’s Board of Supervisors on matters affecting agriculture.

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Although most of the 1,292-acre South Mountain area would be retained as open space, the committee contends that the development of six soccer fields and other potential recreational amenities could conflict with agricultural operations and encourage development.

The committee sees an even greater threat from the potential loss of the 541 acres in the greenbelt between Santa Paula and Fillmore. The area, known as the Teague-McKevett Ranch, is labeled East Area 1 in the plan.

The parcel is owned by lemon-growing giant Limoneira, which has proposed 900 homes, a school and a hotel on the site. Company officials contend that 83% of the ranch is unsuitable for agriculture or of low value.

The committee of farmers has a different opinion. The group regards as insufficient a proposal to compensate for the loss of the land by placing other farmland to the city’s north in the greenbelt.

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“Due to the size of the Teague-McKevett Ranch and the quality of the agricultural soils, APAC believes it would be difficult to replace this farmland with property of equivalent acreage and agricultural quality,” reads a report the committee plans to submit to the city tonight.

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Curiously, the LAFCO citizens committee that also opposes at least part of the city’s expansion advocates building on the Teague-McKevett Ranch. The ranch’s readiness for development would quickly bring much-needed tax revenue to the city, the committee has concluded.

Ornelas, the committee’s spokesman, said Limoneira did not influence that position, despite the aid it provided in forming the committee.

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“They provided some consulting support to guide the committee,” he acknowledged. “Did Limoneira guide us? The answer is no. Did Limoneira ask us to identify East Area 1 as a priority? The answer is no.”

Instead, the 15-member committee--composed of leaders from both white and Latino communities, including school board member Janet Grant and Councilwoman Laura Flores Espinosa--is pushing a much smaller alternative.

This committee wants the city to annex less than one-third of the land at issue. Its proposal rejects developing all but East Areas 1 and 2 and Fagan Canyon.

“We want to go with our best shot to LAFCO, and this is our best shot,” Espinosa said, adding that she sees no conflict in being on a committee that is lobbying the council. “I think LAFCO will definitely go thumbs-down on the [city] plan as currently presented because it’s overly ambitious.”

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Espinosa and Councilman John Melton have voted against the city’s expansion plan when it has come up at earlier stages of discussion.

Meanwhile, the countywide group dubbed SOAR--Save our Open Space and Agricultural Resources--has stayed out of the debate. SOAR is working to place anti-sprawl initiatives before voters in the county and five local cities this fall.

If passed, the county ordinance would not constrain Santa Paula’s growth any more than it would that of any other city in the county, said SOAR organizer Richard Francis. That’s why the group is also trying to get similar ordinances on the books in five communities.

But even if Santa Paula receives permission to expand, Francis is unconvinced that would lead to development in the relatively poor community.

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“It’s essentially contained by its own demographics,” Francis said.

However, City Manager Cosentini said he already has developers “banging on the door.”

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In any event, tonight’s pending approval is merely the next step in a series of bureaucratic and economic hurdles.

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“In all likelihood it will go to LAFCO on a 3-2 vote,” Ornelas said. “It’s going to be a situation where you have a divided city, you have a divided City Council. And it’s not the best way to go before LAFCO to present a vision of your community.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Santa Paula Expansion Plans

If approved, the six proposed expansion areas totaling 9,570 acres would more than quadruple the city’s current acreage. Up to 3,600 homes and more than 4.4 million square feet of commercial space could be built.

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Proposed expansion areas

Area: 1. Adams Canyon

Acres: 5,413

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Area: 2. Fagan Canyon

Acres: 2,173

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Area: 3. East Area 1

Acres: 541

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Area: 4. East Area 2

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Acres: 26

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Area: 5. South Mountain

Acres: 1,292

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Area: 6. West Area 2

Acres: 125

Source: Rincon Consultants Inc.

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