The chain-link fence begins where Main Street ends. Behind it, an expanse of Taylor Ranch stretches for 30,000 acres into the brown, oil-rich mountains above Ventura.
Visitors must report to Max Schnitter, a retired California Highway Patrol sergeant who cruises the property in a four-wheel-drive Chevy Silverado looking for trespassers.
And lately, Schnitter says, the only thing visitors want to see is the verdant oat field, perched high on a panoramic bluff, that has captured the imagination of many Ventura residents as a site for the proposed California State University academic center in Ventura County.
From that spot, a majestic view of the Pacific coastline stretches to the horizon. Ventura, Oxnard and Port Hueneme appear like little villages nestled in the lush greenery below. The Channel Islands seem to float just offshore.
On the surrounding acres, ground squirrels rustle through the sage and cacti. A hawk swoops close to the ground. Lima beans grow in neat rows. A "Private Property" sign lies toppled in the wake of several dozen cattle.
"If you can imagine this all built up, it would put Pepperdine to shame," said Schnitter, referring to the picturesque Malibu campus 40 miles away. "It couldn't hold a candle to this."
Such sentiments have taken on new momentum in recent weeks as the failure of yearlong negotiations to place the classroom facility near the Ventura Harbor forced Cal State on Oct. 20 to begin looking for another location.
Although the ranch was not offered for sale two years ago when Cal State first proposed building the academic center, owner Cynthia Wood has since said through her attorney that she will consider parting with a 550-acre parcel for the project.
"She's not pursuing it, she's not pushing for it," said her attorney, Robert Andrews of Santa Barbara. "But if there is a need or a desire on the part of the community, she would consider it. She is very interested in being civic-minded."
The ranch will likely be the focus of even more attention by the end of the month, with the completion of an engineering study, commissioned by the city, to determine the ranch's suitability as a university site.
Preliminary findings of the study indicate the ranch has "no fatal flaws" that would impede development, said Julie Bulla, project manager for McClelland Engineers of Ventura.
All of which leaves Taylor Ranch advocates hopeful that the oat field on the bluff across the Ventura River will emerge as a strong contender to replace the current Cal State facility, which offers classes to third- and fourth-year students in a cramped office building on Maple Street.
"It has the most magnificent view in the world," said Virginia Howell, a retired Ventura real estate agent, who has worked to generate public support for the ranch site. "I've loved it for so long. It's too logical to ignore."
The ranch, now home to four families, about 300 head of cattle and 400 oil wells, has played a long and colorful role in the region's history.
Records and old newspaper clips on file at the Ventura County Historical Museum tell the ranch's story.
Originally known as Rancho Canada de San Miguelito, it was founded by Don Ramon Rodriguez, a native of Sonora, Mexico, who was given the original 8,000-acre grant by the Mexican government in 1840.
Rodriguez, a community leader, was killed in 1848 while heading a posse looking for bandits who had been terrorizing ranches in the region.
As the story goes, Rodriguez caught one of them from behind. Rather than shoot the bandit in the back, Rodriguez clubbed him with a rifle. The blow only succeeded in breaking the weapon in half, leaving the bandit a clear shot at Rodriguez, who died instantly.
Widow Sold Ranch
His widow, Juana Tico, sold the property later for about a dollar an acre.
"We're very sentimental about the ranch," said Rodriguez' great-granddaughter, Juanita Callender, 77, of Ojai. "We call it 'The Ranch,' as if it were still ours."
The new owner was Green B. Taylor, the ranch's namesake, who had brought his family by covered wagon from Tennessee. Taylor ran sheep on the land until his death near the turn of the century.
On the death of Taylor's widow, Nancy, the property at her request was placed in a trust with the order that any income from the land should be used to teach Greek drama, the arts and cultural courses.
Her daughter, Alice Grubb, however, objected to the strict conditions and successfully challenged the will in court. It proved to be a profitable victory for Grubb. In 1931, oil was discovered on the ranch and the property became one of the most prolific oil fields in the region. More of the oil-rich property was annexed to the ranch, eventually expanding it to 30,000 acres, of which about 7,500 acres are still leased to the Shell and Conoco companies.