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Flawed Assumptions Doomed Taylor Ranch Project

June 30, 1988|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

It was to be a college campus destined to rival the most picturesque, a pastoral oceanside bluff from which a student could ponder the majestic islands and shoreline below.

But three months after Taylor Ranch had been selected for what many believed would someday be Ventura County's first four-year public university, the celebration was cut short.

In a June 3 letter to California State University, the ranch owners stunned local and college officials with the announcement that they were no longer interested in selling a portion of their sprawling, oil-rich property just west of Ventura.

What has emerged in the wake of that disappointment and shock is a story of misguided guesswork and flawed assumptions, a drama in which virtually all the characters have been unwilling or unable to confirm the intentions of their fellow players.

Cynthia Wood, for instance, the Santa Barbara heiress who owns the 30,000-acre ranch, has proven so elusive that no official involved in negotiations has ever met or spoken with her.

Plans Unknown to Mother

Her plans to consider selling a piece of the property remained unknown even to her ailing mother, Ailene B. Claeyssens, who holds the ranch's mineral rights and immediately objected to the idea when she was told last month.

Although both women later pointed to Shell Oil Co.'s lease as the principal obstacle to the project, Shell officials say they have never viewed a university campus as incompatible with continued oil production on the property.

And Cal State officials, who voted in March to begin negotiations to purchase a 550-acre parcel of the ranch, proceeded full-steam ahead, even though they now concede that messages from Wood's attorney explaining her intentions were "hard to interpret."

In fact, the letter from Wood and Claeyssens withdrawing Taylor Ranch from consideration earlier this month was the first direct word that university officials had received from the family since Cal State opened its latest search for a Ventura County campus last fall.

"Lack of communication has crippled this thing," Ventura City Councilman Richard Francis said.

Last week, in an effort to revive hope for a Taylor Ranch campus, Ventura Mayor Jim Monahan wrote to Wood's attorney, J. Robert Andrews of Santa Barbara, seeking a face-to-face meeting with members of the family.

Andrews, however, responded that the 51-year-old Wood, who also rejected several requests from The Times to be interviewed, saw "no useful purpose" in such a meeting.

Meanwhile, City Manager John Baker said his own communication via telephone with Andrews June 7 had been more encouraging, but he declined to comment, terming the situation "very, very sensitive."

In an interview this week, however, Andrews said he had offered little hope to Baker during that conversation. "If he took encouragement, it wasn't intended," Andrews said.

All of which is in keeping with the enigmatic shroud that has obscured the ranch's status during almost every step of Cal State's site selection process, which is in its third year and threatens to exceed a state-mandated 1990 deadline for acquiring a campus site.

Even the emergence of the ranch as a contender for the campus site was a misunderstanding.

When Cal State first announced plans in 1985 to build a classroom complex for about 2,500 third- and fourth-year students, it was assumed that the scenic hillside property was not for sale, said Everett Millais, community development director for Ventura.

In the fall of 1986, however, after Cal State had begun negotiations to purchase a site near the Ventura Harbor, a deluge of letters and petitions favoring Taylor Ranch prompted city officials to take a second look.

While it was widely "understood" that the ranch was unavailable, "to my knowledge, unfortunately, this 'understanding' was never confirmed in writing," Millais explained in a letter to Wood's attorney in early 1987.

Andrews responded by saying that Wood had never been contacted about the availability of her ranch and had "not rejected consideration of the proposal as she is reported to have done."

But, as a review of correspondence on file at City Hall suggests, if the ranch was no longer off-limits, Wood's interest in selling a parcel was far more tenuous than perhaps most observers realized.

In a carefully worded but noncommittal statement that has been Wood's position throughout the ordeal, Andrews on Feb. 20, 1987, wrote:

"She is merely indicating her willingness to listen to any interest that may exist and to explore possible ways in which some mutually agreeable arrangement might be made."

That lukewarm, make-me-an-offer stance remained Wood's position when Cal State reached an impasse in its negotiations for the Harbor Boulevard property last fall and reopened its search for a site. It was her position in October when the city commissioned a $25,000 engineering study to determine the feasibility of development on the ranch.

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