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Keep School Off Farmland

It is time to stop using schools to pry open the gate when developers want to build on Ventura County farmland.

It happened in 1994 when school officials ignored the objections of every local government body and planted Oxnard High School in the midst of a lemon orchard on Gonzales Road. It is about to happen again, this time with an elementary school, unless the public says no.

There are at least two good reasons to deliver that message loud and clear.

This is a time of change in Ventura County: changing attitudes, changing public policy. Concern over conversion of the fertile fields that support the county’s billion-dollar farm industry has reached unprecedented heights, touching off the countywide Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources (SOAR) campaign and a variety of competing measures. The Board of Supervisors has passed a right-to-farm ordinance affirming the county’s desire to prevent new development from hamstringing long-established agriculture operations.

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At the same time, teachers are beginning to step forward with complaints about the effects of pesticides on adjacent schools. Teachers in Rio School District have publicly blamed health problems ranging from headaches to asthma on spraying near their campuses.

There is still plenty of debate about how much danger toxic chemicals actually pose to children who attend school nearby. Yet such reports reinforce what ought to be just plain common sense: Schools should be the last thing we think of building in the midst of working fields. Too often they have been the first.

It’s hard to imagine a clearer example than the Oxnard School District’s preferred site for Juan Laguna Soria Elementary, between Rice and Rose avenues just south of Emerson.

The 14-acre site is surrounded by lettuce, pepper and strawberry fields that are heavily sprayed, sometimes from the air, with pesticides, herbicides and fumigants. The farmers have warned school trustees of their concern for the health of students. They also fear litigation should someone fall ill and worry that conflict could make them scale back or cease farming.

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The site is part of the city’s Southeast Plan area, where a developer last year sought to build more than 3,000 homes and a farm theme park on 800 acres of prime Oxnard Plain farmland. The Oxnard City Council has repeatedly rejected various versions of that project.

The school district argues that it needs to put a school somewhere--and fast. With more than 14,600 students, it is the largest elementary school district in the county, and officials expect enrollment to grow by 700 by fall 1999. To make room, and to take advantage of the state’s class-size reduction mandate, the district needs two new schools within five years.

Thanks to special efforts on both sides, schools and farms do coexist all over Ventura County. Because so much of Oxnard’s undeveloped land is farmed, and because the district indisputably needs to keep building schools, a time may someday come when there is no alternative. But that should be a last resort, and this time there are other options.

School officials rejected two other sites in already-developed areas because of their proximity to U.S. Highway 1 and to a business-industrial park that the district considers an incompatible neighbor. But U.S. 1 is scheduled to be rerouted up Rice Avenue--not far from the school district’s preferred location.

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In light of growing public concern over protecting our children from farm chemicals and protecting our farms from urban encroachment, The Times urges the Oxnard School District to take another look at its criteria and at these other sites.


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