A month ago, it was a Trojan horse, but now the Oxnard City Council sees an offer of free land for a university site as a knight in shining armor.
In November, one Oxnard City Council member said the strings-attached offer by Ag Land Services of 100 acres for a California State University center smacked of "getting into bed with a developer." Another derided the proposal as "a pressure job," designed to force Oxnard into allowing construction on prime agricultural lands.
Some council members worried that the proposed campus at Gonzales Road and Victoria Avenue would increase traffic on Victoria, already the busiest road in unincorporated Ventura County. Others fretted about the possibility of campus-connected development increasing density in the city's upscale northwestern corner.
But last week, those reservations abruptly disappeared. In a move that even surprised an Ag Land official, the council voted to shift its preference for the Cal State site from a parcel at the proposed Ormond Beach resort area to the Ag Land lemon grove.
The 11-hour decision breathed new life into a proposal that both Oxnard and Cal State had previously discounted. Cal State representatives indicated last month that the Taylor Ranch outside Ventura would be the site that trustees would probably choose in January. They reportedly were troubled by problems at the Ormond Beach site that Oxnard then preferred and had no indication from Oxnard officials that they would look favorably on the Ag Land site.
But a month--and promises by Ag Land to help pay for improvements in roads serving Oxnard--has made all the difference. The Somis company would be the only one of the three property owners in the running who would donate a site to Cal State. In return, Ag Land would receive rezoning and other concessions from Oxnard that would enable development of a neighboring 180 acres that it also owns.
The city also would benefit from the complex agreement, say city and company officials. Under a compromise that would give new meaning to making lemonade of lemons, City Council members said they would support the Ag Land site if the company would help foot the bill for improving the heavily congested Victoria Avenue link with the 101 Freeway in Ventura.
"We've got an existing problem and no apparent means to fix it," Councilman Michael Plisky later explained, summing up sentiments about Victoria Avenue congestion. "Along comes Ag Land and their plans to develop a university. We can have a better way of life here as a result."
A majority of the council apparently agrees. Council members have expressed support for annexing the proposed university center site, an essential step because county guidelines restrict growth outside city boundaries. The city also would require that developers of the 180-acre parcel not exceed the five-houses-per-acre density of the northwest area.
"If we plan carefully," Plisky said, "we can have our cake and eat it too."
Whether Oxnard will have any cake at all may be determined as soon as university trustees convene in January. They are to sit in closed session during the meeting, which starts Jan. 12, to weigh the merits of the three sites.
In the meantime, Ventura County's Local Agency Formation Commission, which would have to approve the annexation of any of the three proposed sites, is preparing an evaluation of each site's agricultural viability, availability of services, zoning status and attractiveness to developers, said LAFCO executive officer Robert L. Braitman. Trustees requested the report and will use it in their deliberations, he said.
Under the plan, Ag Land would give Cal State the 80-acre plot of lemon trees and the money to buy 20 more acres on adjoining land.
Scene Is Serene
On a recent morning, the lemon grove was, predictably, tranquil.
The rooftops of the city's newest and most exclusive subdivisions lay within sight to the east. To the west, workers waded waste-deep in celery plants and nursery flowers. Among the trees, a ladder rested lazily against a spindly trunk as though someone had begun to pick fruit, noted its greenish tinge and thought better of it.
But the tranquility dissolved on nearby Victoria Avenue, which would be congested even more by a Cal State campus and the proposed development linked to it. Cars whizzed by to the two-lane Santa Clara Bridge, which city traffic engineers blame for bottlenecks because an estimated 28,000 trips are made on it each day. Two miles north of the bridge, motorists face an inevitable jam at Victoria's link with the Ventura Freeway, Ventura's most heavily traveled intersection.
Ventura would like to see the interchange upgraded, but funds are not available, said the city's traffic engineer, Nazir Lalani. The county's plans call for widening Victoria south of Olivas Park Drive, first to four lanes and then, by 2010, to 10 lanes. But, again, funds have yet to be budgeted, said Steve Manz, assistant traffic engineer for the county.