In yet another setback to efforts to build one of the largest housing developments in Ventura County history, a Superior Court judge on Thursday tentatively agreed to overturn the annexation of 4,300 acres set aside for the project.
In his provisional ruling, Judge Thomas J. Hutchins said the Local Agency Formation Commission--the state-authorized organization that governs annexation and boundary issues--improperly allowed Moorpark to annex land for a 3,221-unit housing project north of town.
Agreeing with attorneys for the Environmental Coalition of Ventura County, which filed a lawsuit last year to halt the project, Hutchins said the commission wrongly based its decision on planning documents that were either outdated or never valid because of the passage of a slow-growth measure, known as SOAR, by Moorpark voters in January.
"The decision by LAFCO . . . I think was fatally flawed and [made] without substantial evidence," the judge told lawyers gathered at the Simi Valley Courthouse. "At the very heart of this case, in my observation, is that LAFCO failed to do its job."
If the ruling stands, it would deal a significant blow to a decade-long effort by Costa Mesa-based Messenger Investment Co. to build Hidden Creek Ranch, a sprawling development that would boost the city's population by one-third during the next two decades.
Lawyers will return to court this morning to continue arguments in the case. Hutchins said he would take the matter under submission before handing down a final decision, probably next month.
For those who have long fought against the Hidden Creek project, a favorable ruling is viewed as crucial to preventing the development from ever moving forward.
Despite voter approval six months ago of two growth-control initiatives, Messenger is still fighting to build its project.
One of those measures overturned the Moorpark City Council's approval last year of the Hidden Creek project. The other, known as the Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources initiative, or SOAR, prevents the city from growing beyond its borders without voter approval.
Messenger sued the city in April, alleging that SOAR is unconstitutional and asking that it be abolished.
Short of that, the company contends the city has effectively taken its land for public use without just compensation, and is seeking more than $150 million remuneration.
The environmental coalition's lawsuit seeks to gut that legal argument by setting aside the annexation to the city and returning the land to county control.
"It's the last piece in the citizens' fight against Messenger," said Ventura lawyer Richard Francis, a principal architect of the SOAR measure approved in Moorpark and several other Ventura County cities.
If the ruling stands, "Messenger doesn't have land within the city," Francis said. "At that point, Messenger has no right to build, and the lawsuit saying it lost its right to build falls on its face."
But an attorney for the developer rattled off a list of reasons why Judge Hutchins should change his mind, including a claim that the Environmental Coalition failed to exhaust administrative remedies before filing the lawsuit.
Ventura lawyer William E. Paterson said Francis never raised with LAFCO the objections made in the lawsuit.
"That fact--and that fact alone--destroys the entirety of his case," Paterson said. "He did not seek reconsideration [with LAFCO], so he is not entitled to bring this action."
If Hutchins doesn't change his ruling, the annexation issue would be sent back to LAFCO for reconsideration. However, Messenger's General Counsel Bruce Peotter isn't ready to think that far ahead.
"We are surprised by the tentative ruling," he said. "But we think when the court takes this under submission, the judge will change his mind."
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Moorpark Expansion Project
Orange County-based Messenger Investment Co. wants to build 3,221 homes on a 4,300-acre parcel. The project would increase the city's population by nearly 10,000 people.
Source: Moorpark Planning Department