The threat of a lawsuit by developers challenging sharp limits on the construction of new housing in Ventura has increased dramatically in recent weeks, according to both city officials and developers.
City officials are reviewing letters on behalf of two Orange County developers that challenge Ventura's slow-growth housing policies on two separate legal fronts.
The Lusk Co. and Presley of Southern California, two Irvine firms seeking to build major developments in the Ventura area, are protesting city plans to allocate 1,850 new housing units over the next 10 years.
In a letter written on behalf of Lusk, the Los Angeles law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher challenged city housing allocations on the basis that they will be linked to developer agreements that might unfairly force developers to pay for added city services in exchange for construction rights.
A broader attack was mounted in a separate letter on behalf of the Presley company, arguing that Ventura's plans for 1,850 housing units fall far short of legally binding regional housing quotas.
The quotas, set by the Southern California Regional Assn. of Governments, or SCAG, on behalf of the state Department of Housing and Community Development, call for construction of 4,116 housing units in the city from 1989 to 1994.
Joe Carreras, a senior housing planner for SCAG in Los Angeles, said the regional housing quotas are prepared every five years in compliance with state law and are intended partly to allow "the free working of the marketplace" in housing construction throughout the state.
Although Carreras noted that cities can seek a downward revision of the quotas if they think local housing must be limited for any number of reasons, he said the city of Ventura did not seek an adjustment last year when SCAG set its quotas.
"That makes them more exposed to a possible lawsuit than most cities," Carreras said.
The threat of a lawsuit aimed at a legal resolution of Ventura's continuing growth controversy was increased partly by recent public comments by City Councilman Richard Francis, indicating that most future housing allocations might be linked to developer agreements.
In such arrangements, developers typically pay for such city facilities as sewer lines or wider roads in exchange for the right to build. However, state law makes successful legal challenges possible in cases where such agreements force developers to provide more services than can be reasonably justified.
Although Community Development Director Everett Millais said this week he does not expect most future construction to be linked to developer agreements, Francis argued that such arrangements are likely to be the rule rather than the exception.
"It's really what I think will happen," Francis said. "I also think there is a high chance of a legal challenge in the near future. The city can argue that its resources, such as water, are limited and can only sustain a population of 102,000. But there is the potential that some court somewhere will tell us we have the means to bring water here and that we must therefore allocate more housing."
The challenge by the Presley company to Ventura housing policies was written by Orange County consultant Hardy M. Strozier, who accused Ventura city officials of using the water supply "as an unfair reason to restrict growth."
Strozier told The Times that Presley's position is that SCAG housing quotas for the region are legally binding on Ventura, and he said discussions of a lawsuit among developers are increasing.
"If this council proceeds on the path it's on, a lawsuit is very likely," Strozier said. "You're probably looking at the next six months."
Donald Greenberg, Ventura city attorney, said a city study of the legal issues is not complete, but he added that he does not think the city committed a fatal error in not requesting a revision of SCAG quotas last year.
"I think it would have been desirable if we had done so, but the fact that resources are limited is still a valid legal justification for us," he said. "The bottom line is that the state law has language that when there are factors making it difficult to meet SCAG quotas, you don't have to meet them."
Greenberg said developers have used the threat of lawsuits in other cities to try to pressure local politicians into compromise positions.
"That's not going to work here," he said.
The issue of housing allocations was before the Ventura City Council earlier this month but has been shelved pending the inauguration of three new slow-growth council members Dec. 4. City officials say the council may not act on the measure until January.