In a stunning letter to California State University, the owners of Taylor Ranch have withdrawn their offer to sell a 550-acre parcel for a college campus, citing the incompatibility of such a project with continued oil production on the property.
Cynthia Wood, owner of the 30,000-acre ranch, and her mother, Ailene B. Claeyssens, who owns the underground mineral deposits, said they had decided that the proposed campus would probably interfere with the rights of access they have leased to Shell Oil Co. for more than 75 years.
"We thought it more equitable to inform you of our decision immediately so you may direct your efforts elsewhere for the location of a new campus," they wrote in the Friday letter.
Cal State officials, who had decided in March to try to purchase a portion of the scenic ocean-side property west of Ventura, said they were dismayed by the sudden withdrawal, especially since the owners had been expressing a willingness to negotiate since last fall.
University officials also voiced concern about additional delays in their already protracted effort to bring a classroom complex for several thousand third- and fourth-year students to Ventura County--a plan that they must embark upon by July, 1990, or risk losing the $7 million allocated for the project by the Legislature.
"Unexpected and disappointing," said Jack Smart, Cal State deputy provost, who received the letter earlier this week. "You draw your own conclusions. I have no understanding of what all was involved here."
Ventura city officials, who had viewed the Cal State campus as a boon for both the city's prestige and its economy, were equally taken aback.
Meeting With Shell Officials
"That letter was kind of a 'Wow!' right in the face," said Mayor Jim Monahan. "We didn't have a chance to even ask them, 'Wait a minute--clarify this statement.' But, even so, we're going to see if they may reconsider."
The letter from Wood and Claeyssens appears to have been prompted by a meeting last month between Shell and Cal State, in which oil company officials said they would need at least six months to conduct a geological study of the property.
While there are no oil wells on the hillside bluff that Cal State hoped to buy, the rest of the 5,600 acres to which Shell has access has been a prolific source of petroleum ever since the company began leasing the land in 1911. About 200 Shell wells operate on the ranch today.
"It shouldn't be a surprise to anybody that we want to make sure our rights of access to our minerals are preserved," said Jimmy Fox, spokesman for Shell Western Exploration & Production, a subsidiary of the oil conglomerate.
Cal State officials, who had been told by Wood that no negotiations could begin until the university worked out an agreement with Shell over mineral rights, had said they would be flexible in their architectural plans in order to provide the company access to any deposits it found.
Still, university officials lamented the prospect of a 6-month delay in their efforts, which began more than two years ago when a statewide Cal State survey concluded that an expanded college facility would be needed to handle the substantial growth predicted for Ventura County.
"We knew there would be some lease issue to be resolved, but we assumed it could be done relatively easy," Smart had said. "That obviously was naive on our part."
Even though Shell officials did not rule out the possibility of a peaceful coexistence with Cal State on the ranch, Wood believed that the chances were slim and that "the writing was already on the wall," said her attorney, Robert Andrews of Santa Barbara.
"The family just decided it wasn't fair to the community to be stringing them along," Andrews said.
The university's five-member site selection committee will discuss alternative locations for the planned campus when the Cal State Board of Trustees meets in Long Beach on July 12-13, Smart said.
So ends the latest chapter in the spirited history of the ranch, a former Mexican land grant whose owners over the last 150 years have never developed its verdant slopes.
In 1986, when Cal State began soliciting sites for a campus to replace the crowded facility serving about 1,000 students in mid-town Ventura, Taylor Ranch was often mentioned, but Wood never offered the property as a contender in the university's search.
Cal State ended up selecting a plot of land owned by the Lusk Co. near the Ventura Harbor and, for the following year, was mired in unsuccessful negotiations over the 330-acre parcel.
During that time, however, Ventura city officials were impressed by a surge of support for the ranch by a public that envisioned a campus rivaling picturesque Pepperdine, which overlooks the ocean in Malibu 40 miles down the coast.
Not Eager to Sell
Wood, through her attorney, indicated that she was not eager to allow any development on the ranch, but would consider selling a parcel to the university because of the intense public interest.
When Cal State broke off negotiations with Lusk in October, Taylor Ranch quickly became the popular candidate and was rivaled only by Ag Land Services, a Somis-based developer that said it would donate 132 acres of Oxnard land to Cal State and sell another 80 acres at a reduced price.
But Cal State officials, swayed by the ranch's panoramic view and peaceful setting, voted March 9 to begin negotiations to buy a parcel for a university that might be up and running by 1993.
"I think we just were not given all the facts," Smart said. "Why that occurred, I just don't know. Whether we would have changed our decision if we had known everything at the outset, I don't know either."