LAFCO Files Suit to Block School Plan
A state agency charged with maintaining orderly growth in Ventura County filed a lawsuit Monday aimed at blocking plans to build an elementary school on a 14-acre sod field just east of Oxnard.
The Local Agency Formation Commission seeks to prevent Oxnard from extending water, sewer and public safety services to the proposed Juan Soria Elementary school at the east end of Emerson Avenue.
The agency last year rejected a request by the Oxnard School District to annex that parcel to the city, arguing that allowing a school to be built on farmland would set a dangerous precedent.
But in December, the school district contracted with the city for public services, a move that would have allowed construction to proceed without the annexation.
LAFCO’s lawsuit relies on a revision in state law that took effect Jan. 1 that requires commission approval for the extension of public services outside a city’s boundaries.
The suit, filed in Ventura County Superior Court against the city and school district, also seeks to halt any construction on the site until the issue is settled, although the school district has not given final approval to purchasing the property.
“LAFCO wants to make sure its authorities are not being circumvented,” said Everett Millais, executive director of the state-mandated regulatory agency charged with reviewing all proposed city boundary changes.
School district officials said they were frustrated by the latest development in their more than two-year campaign to build the district’s 20th elementary school.
Supt. Richard Duarte said he believes the court should uphold the arrangement between the city and the school district because the revision in state law cited by LAFCO didn’t go into effect until after the agreement had been reached.
He said it’s possible that the school district could build on that site without the city’s help, but he doesn’t want to think about that yet.
“We are disappointed that we continue to face opposition to what we feel is an acceptable school site,” Duarte said. “Our problem is not going away. We are still in desperate need of a new school.”
Duarte and others made a similar argument to LAFCO officials in November during a meeting on a request to annex the farmland to Oxnard.
District officials say they need to open three elementary schools and one middle school in the next five years to meet the needs of a mushrooming student population. Although dozens of sites were considered, district officials said the south Oxnard parcel was the best choice for the Soria campus.
Dozens of opponents argued against the annexation, saying the school district failed to consider all available sites. They also expressed concern about farmland encroachment and potential pesticide exposure to students at the school, which would be surrounded by strawberry fields.
Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez said Monday he agreed to extend services to the proposed campus because the school district could build on the field anyway, digging its own water wells and providing septic tanks for sewage.
“It seemed to me like we almost had no options, that it was better for us to provide these services from a public health and safety standpoint,” Lopez said. “We are supportive of providing schools for children, but that’s a responsibility of the school system. Our decision had nothing to do with the debate about which site was best.”
Ventura County Supervisor John K. Flynn, whose Oxnard-area district includes the Emerson parcel, said he believes the Jan. 1 change in state law prompted city and school district officials to rush into an agreement for public services.
He said he hopes both parties will now be willing to drop the site in favor of parcels that he contends make more sense.
“That is simply the wrong site,” said Flynn, who has launched a campaign on behalf of four alternative locations. “We want to show [school officials] some ways we can help them be more responsive to the community.”
Rex Laird, president of the Ventura County Farm Bureau, said he was encouraged by LAFCO’s move, not only because he opposes the Emerson Avenue site but because it sends a message to others about the county’s passion for farmland preservation.
“Finally somebody is showing some leadership in the issue of land use in Ventura County,” Laird said. “Unfortunately, it had to come to this, but sooner or later the cities of the county are going to have to show some discipline when it comes to land-use planning.”
Though he acknowledges his interpretation of the Jan. 1 change in state law has not been tested in court, LAFCO attorney Noel Klebaum said he believes any public services Oxnard agreed to provide the proposed school would have had to have been in place by the end of last year.
School district attorney Mitchel Kahn sees plenty of room for a different interpretation.
“Obviously the city and the school district believed at the time that what they were doing was correct and legal, otherwise they would not have done it,” he said. “I guess it’s going to be up to a court to decide.”
Times staff writer Margaret Talev contributed to this story.