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Tensions on Rise in Moorpark : School-Site Dispute Highlights Differences in Old and New Areas

May 25, 1989|TRACEY KAPLAN | Times Staff Writer

Teresa Godinez is so fed up with Moorpark officials that she has asked a lawyer about suing the school district and the city to force a decision on the fate of a 70-year-old high school that closed nearly a year ago.

But the city and school district may beat Godinez to the punch and file suits against each other if they cannot reach a compromise soon on what to do with the school's 26-acre campus, officials said.

In a dispute that reflects tension between old and new residents of this rapidly growing city of 24,900, the two entities have been unable to agree for the past year on how the property on Casey Road should be zoned or on the price of a portion that Godinez and other residents want for a public park.

The district says the eight acres that the city wants for the downtown park are worth $980,000--about three times more than the city's offer of $319,750.

While no one is eager to have the issue settled in court--Godinez said her group has decided to try lobbying politicians before suing--frustration and bitterness are growing.

"We'll use the court system if we have to," City Councilman Scott Montgomery said.

The problem is that "when Moorpark sues Moorpark, the people who pay are the Moorpark taxpayers," said school board member Tom Baldwin. "The only people who win are the lawyers."

The dispute over the Memorial Union High School campus began more than a year ago when the school district announced plans to sell or lease the site for development to pay for new schools needed in other parts of the rapidly growing district.

The district, which has about 4,500 students in kindergarten through 12th grades, has been growing at a rate of 10% to 15% a year, said Thomas G. Duffy, superintendent of the Moorpark Unified School District. Most of the growth comes from new housing tracts outside the downtown area, he said.

Rezoning Requested

In April, 1988, the school district asked the City Council to rezone the abandoned high school property for residential or commercial use. The site is now zoned for about three homes per acre, which is too few to generate enough income to pay for new schools, Duffy said.

The property is made up of a large flat parcel near railroad tracks, known as the lower fields; a smaller football field on a terraced hillside, and several structures, including a gymnasium, a 350-seat auditorium and classroom buildings. The district closed the old high school in June, 1988, and a new high school across town opened the following September.

"We see the property on Casey Road as an asset we can use to generate an income stream," Duffy said. "We can't educate kids unless we have funds."

But several citizens groups oppose large-scale development of the downtown site, primarily because of traffic concerns. One group, which launched an unsuccessful recall campaign in June, 1988, against four of the five school board members who supported developing the site, said the old high school should be preserved because of its historic significance. The City Council did not approve the zoning change that the district requested.

"We need more growth in Moorpark like Hitler needed more Russians," said Bill La Perch, president of the downtown Neighborhood Council, which opposes high-density development of the site and wants the city to buy part of the property for a park.

'Ignored and Deprived'

Godinez, a member of a group called Citizens Advocating a Major Park, said longtime downtown-area residents have felt increasingly "neglected, ignored and deprived" by city officials as Moorpark's population has grown sixfold, from 4,030 in 1980 to 24,900 at the end of 1988, according to a report by the state Department of Finance.

"It's our turn now, and we want a downtown park on the lower fields," Godinez said, noting that all but one of the city's nine parks are in newly developed areas.

The district is willing to sell the city the lower fields for a park but expects to be able to develop the rest of the property in exchange, Baldwin said. But the two have been unable to work out a deal after months of negotiations.

Under a provision of the state Education Code known as the Naylor Act, a city is allowed to purchase 30% of a district's surplus school sites for as little as 25% of market value. Based on a $4.2-million appraisal of the 26-acre site, the city has offered the district $319,750 for the eight acres of the lower fields.

Considered Most Valuable

But the district says the lower fields, which it considers the most valuable portion of the property, are worth $980,000. The appraisals differ because the district appraised the land as if it were already zoned for higher densities and thus were more valuable, said Councilman Clinton D. Harper.

In addition, the district said that because only 17 acres of the hilly property are usable, the city can buy only about five acres at a reduced price under the Naylor Act, instead of eight acres.

"It's pie-in-sky planning and we don't buy it," Harper said. "The city will get the lower fields at the price it wants or that site will just sit there at current zoning."

Baldwin, on the other hand, called the city's offer "a setup for a lawsuit."

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