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Ventura’s Plan to Sell Cross Is on Shaky Ground, Suit Says

Times Staff Writers

Ventura city attorneys thought they had a solution to avoid possible litigation aimed at removing a towering cross overlooking downtown: Sell the land beneath it and let the new owner decide whether to take it down.

But descendants of the family that originally owned the hilltop property filed a lawsuit this week to block such a sale, arguing that Kenneth and Tonie Grant deeded the land to the city in 1918 on condition it be used forever as a public park.

The lawsuit states that ownership must revert back to the Grant family if the city intends to sell.

The suit further complicates the question of what to do with the historic cross and leaves city leaders in the crosshairs of separate disputes over property rights and the appropriateness of maintaining a religious landmark on public land.

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“I understand the position they are in,” said attorney Terence Geoghegan, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of 95-year-old Bruce McDonell, the sole surviving grandson of the Grants, and his grandson, Jay Cortner.

“But I have a client who has a real estate deed, which has what appears to be on its face a protectable interest,” Geoghegan said. “And simply as a matter of guarding that economic interest, I have been asked to take certain steps ... mainly, we needed to put the city on notice.”

Assistant City Atty. Christopher Norman said there is no doubt the city owns the land at Grant Park. But whether the Grant descendants have reversionary rights to the property, including the 400-square-foot area surrounding the 24-foot-tall cross, is something attorneys are researching.

The city has 30 days to respond.

As for the future of the cross, Norman said the city hasn’t sold the property or put it out to bid and is carefully studying its options.

“The city just has to look at the legal issues and make the best decisions that it can given the state of the law,” he said.

The city attorney recently suggested auctioning the landmark because that would transfer the cross and the patch of land beneath it from public to private hands. It also would end the threat of litigation that city officials are pessimistic about winning.

At the same time, though, it would carry a risk: Whoever submits the highest bid for the 91-year-old cross, its concrete pedestal and the grassy area around it would have the right to either keep it up or take it down.

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“The city hopes that whoever is successful will want to keep the cross there,” Norman said earlier this week. “But we can’t make that a condition of the bid.”

City officials contend that the cross is not a religious icon but a piece of history and a reminder of Ventura’s missionary roots. A cross has stood at the spot in what is now Grant Park on and off for about 200 years, they say.

But controversy surrounding the cross surfaced in March when three Ventura County residents threatened to sue, contending that the city’s ownership and maintenance of the cross violate constitutional guarantees against a state religion. One of them has said he would bid if the cross is put on the auction block, said Vince Chhabria, the residents’ San Francisco attorney.

“We’re encouraged by the city attorney’s recommendation,” he said recently, “but we’re still very concerned about the details.”

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Chhabria would not name the man who expressed interest in bidding, but said he presumed his aim would be to have the cross removed.

Stan Kohls, a retired teacher who lives in Somis, is one of Chhabria’s clients in the case. He said Tuesday that he couldn’t afford to submit a bid.

“I just want the cross taken down,” he said. “It’s an advertisement for religion in a public park.”

Kohls has said he volunteered as a plaintiff when he heard that a group called Americans United for Separation of Church and State was thinking of taking action on the cross.

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