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Endangered Species : Port Hueneme Pioneer Sits Tight, Watches Massive Development Closing In on Her

August 25, 1988|JEFF GORDINIER | Times Staff Writer

Three back-yard fruit trees, one yellow tomato plant and a small gray house are all that remain of what was once 91-year-old Filomena Oliveira's 65-acre farm in Port Hueneme.

To the west of her house is Oliveira Plaza, a cluster of video depots and fast-food restaurants.

On the other side is the concrete frame of a Ralph's supermarket, anchor for the Mandalay Village shopping center now in the first phase of construction.

Behind the house is a field that by the spring of 1989 will become a neighborhood of 134 Cape Cod-style homes known as the Pacific Collection.

And smack in the middle of the development, where only a scrawny hedge stands between Oliveira and a squadron of bulldozers, is her house.

"It's mine as long as I live," said Oliveira, relaxing in a den full of family portraits and Catholic icons. "They can't chase me out of here."

Oliveira owns the last parcel of land open for development in Port Hueneme. Though she has sold or leased most of the former sugar beet farm to developers, Oliveira refuses to sell her house.

She and her husband, Manuel, built the home in 1919, four years after moving to the United States from the Portuguese Azores. When her husband died of pneumonia in 1924, Oliveira supported her five children by learning to grow beets, beans and corn in the rich seaside dirt.

"Her whole life has been there," said Lena Lee, 66, the first of Oliveira's daughters to be born in the Port Hueneme house. "She's attached to it. It was a beautiful, peaceful life before all the development came in there."

Sutter Hill Co. opened Oliveira Plaza in 1975. Weston Development started work last April on the Pacific Collection and Mandalay Village, which will include about 35 stores.

Bob Jones, vice president of Weston Development, said his company initially offered to buy Oliveira's house, but she refused to sell. After negotiations with Oliveira's attorney, Weston decided to lease the prime terrain and to build right up to the perimeter of Oliveira's yard.

"Her life style is not going to change very much," Jones said. "A lot of it has to do with recognizing that their land is worth more for development than as agricultural land."

Oliveira's attorney, Laura K. McAvoy, would not divulge the amount of money Oliveira gets from leasing her land to the developers. But Oliveira said, "Every once in a while they give me a couple hundred thousand."

"She's financially well off now," said Oliveira's son, Manuel Jr., 64, a farmer in the San Joaquin Valley. "Too bad she isn't younger."

The Ventura County assessor's office estimates the value of Oliveira's parcel to be about $5 million. But she scoffs at the notion of a lavish life.

"Since I was a little girl from the old country, I would save one penny," Oliveira said. "I'd go to the store and look at the candy but the money stayed in my pocket."

Weston has a similar purchase agreement with Betty Henderson, a Ventura resident whose farmhouse, once the hub of an 80-acre lemon orchard, now sits at the center of the half-finished Weston Village, a group of apartments and condominiums.

"I don't know whether I'm a developer or a farmer," said Henderson, who plans to build a six-foot stone wall around her house once Weston's encircling construction is complete. "I can't quite imagine what I'll feel like."

Though Jones does not rule out the possibility that Weston will buy Oliveira's house once she dies, her grandson Billy Wehagen, who lives with three cats in a cottage adjoining the house, said he will stay.

"I'm going to hold out, too," said Wehagen, wearing dark sunglasses and a sleeveless T-shirt. "Forget moving out. I'm living here."

Still, Manuel Oliveira Jr. believes Weston will eventually get the house.

Some local residents argue that the development on the Oliveira and Henderson properties represents a trend that threatens all of Ventura County's farmland.

"We are losing prime agricultural land," said Stan Greene, a spokesman for Citizens to Preserve the Ojai. "I don't think that's good. It's just like what happened in L.A., Orange County, Riverside."

Oliveira is bewildered by the construction.

"It disgusts me," she said. "So much holes, huge pipes. It looks like we're going to China."

But the moat of sand and giant equipment will not convince Oliveira to leave the family castle.

"I hope they never come say 'move out' because I want to live the rest of my days here," she said. "I love it because it reminds me of the good times we and the kids had together and the bad times we had to struggle and pay for stuff."

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