When Annemarie Malloy-Robles heard about the controversy surrounding the wooden cross that overlooks downtown Ventura, she drove up to snap a photo of the landmark. She isn’t sure it will be there much longer.
“I wanted to come and see it again before they change it,” she said, “or .... “
Her voice trailed off.
The Ventura City Council is expected to vote tonight on whether to auction the land under the towering 91-year-old cross, perched atop Grant Park. The historic landmark has become the subject of intense debate and proposed legal action between those who want to save it and others who hold that the religious symbol has no place on public land.
Advocates from both sides are expected to voice their concerns about the structure.
City officials say a cross has been at the park for more than 200 years, possibly first erected in 1782 by San Buenaventura Mission founder Father Junipero Serra. Some historians, however, dispute this.
Malloy-Robles, a schoolteacher in Paso Robles, won’t be in town for tonight’s meeting. But the former Ventura resident said she was rooting for the 24-foot-tall cross to stay put. It’s not a religious symbol for her, just a part of her childhood, her school lessons, the rendezvous point for countless dates. “ ‘Meet me at the cross,’ they used to say.”
Three Ventura County residents and a San Francisco lawyer have threatened to sue Ventura, contending that the city’s ownership and maintenance of the cross violated the constitutional separation of church and state.
If previous court rulings against public cross ownership in San Diego County and San Francisco are any indication, Ventura would probably lose a lawsuit, said City Atty. Bob Boehm.
City attorneys hope they can dissuade council members from letting the controversy get to court, where they say legal costs could top $1 million. They would prefer selling the land around the cross and letting the new owner decide whether to save it.
“We’re not recommending that we go up there with a chain saw and cut down the cross,” Boehm said. “We’re trying to recommend that ... the public keep that cross in its present place, be it through private ownership.”
An auction would carry with it the condition that any owner must keep the land available for public use, Boehm said.
The one-acre landscaped area surrounding the cross costs the city about $7,280 annually to keep up as a park, though a buyer could maintain it for less, according to Deputy City Atty. Amy Albano. Councilman Brian Brennan feels the only way to keep the cross is to sell it. He said the expense of owning the land, even if small, would deter most of the symbol’s opponents.
“If you want to save the cross, try to get past the mentality, ‘onward Christian soldiers,’ and let’s come up with a way that we can really save it,” he said. “Is the guy from San Francisco really going to come in here and buy the land and take down the cross and pay to maintain it each year? I don’t think so.”
But opponents of auctioning the park say that the city’s case is historically unique from other cross lawsuits and has substantial grounds for a legal defense. Besides, nobody has offered to buy the land yet, said Jerry Nordskog, chairman of the Ventura County Leadership Council.
“When you’re sued for something that’s not really legitimate ... you don’t want to back off,” Nordskog said. “You’ve got to take some stands about your convictions.”
The City Council is scheduled to take up the cross issue at 7 tonight at Ventura City Hall, 501 Poli St.