Backing away from an ultimatum identifying Taylor Ranch outside Ventura as the only acceptable site for a new Cal State University campus in the county, university officials have expressed an "honest interest" in alternative locations to the controversial hillside property.
At a meeting in Ventura last week, state university trustees voted to authorize a new environmental impact report on the Taylor Ranch site that will likely be the most extensive study undertaken to date by Cal State, university officials said.
Once ordered, the report will take a year to complete, officials believe, with construction of a campus still four years away.
The detailed discussion of alternative sites and their environmental impacts is needed, officials say, to withstand possible legal challenges from opposition groups and objections from residents.
But officials contend that their new-found intention to consider alternative sites does not contradict the university's position stated late last year. Chancellor W. Ann Reynolds said then that without public support for a university at Taylor Ranch, Cal State would take its resources to a county that does want a university.
"I don't see the position as being incompatible," said David Leveille, director of institutional relations for Cal State. "It's a requirement of the California Environmental Quality Act we were familiar with that we must look at alternative sites."
The law, which requires a study of how a new development will affect air quality, traffic, water and other resources, also requires the university to evaluate whether other locations would have fewer environmental consequences.
"I suspect that this environmental impact report will be different from other EIRs by Cal State," said Vice Chancellor John M. Smart. "We will look more closely at alternative sites. There is an honest interest in alternatives."
But Smart said the trustees stand firm in their preference for Taylor Ranch, a now unproductive spread of hillside farmland that boasts a commanding view of the Pacific.
"The trustees' interest is in Taylor Ranch and we must keep that in mind," he said.
Progress toward building a university in Ventura County was temporarily halted last November after the Environmental Coalition of Ventura County successfully argued that the first environmental study was inadequate because it considered only the impact of a two-year campus with 2,000 full-time students.
The two-year campus for upper-division students will grow over 30 years into a campus large enough for 12,000 to 15,000 students, according to university plans.
The Environmental Coalition based its case on a precedent set in a Bay Area court decision that cited the California Environmental Quality Act.
A similar interpretation of the same law could open Cal State to challenges on the Taylor Ranch study, officials said.
In the 1988 suit of Citizens of Goleta Valley vs. the Board of Supervisors, the Court of Appeal found that alternative locations for a proposed 400-room Hyatt hotel had to be completely analyzed. Giving hotel opponents further latitude, the court set no geographical boundaries within which alternatives had to be considered.
Consultant W. Keith Julian, vice president of environmental planning for Woodward-Clyde Consultants of Santa Barbara, one of three firms being considered to conduct the Taylor Ranch study, called the decision "revolutionary."
"Do they have to go to Outer Mongolia for alternatives?" he asked.
Court challenges are only one possible hurdle left for Cal State. The Local Agency Formation Commission and the city of Ventura must agree to annex the Taylor Ranch site to the city in order for the university to build there, university officials have said.
The City Council's ad hoc committee on the university this week asked the council to set up a group to evaluate alternative sites on its own. The council, which did not act on the motion, will reconsider it Monday.
The environmental impact study also will have to establish the state university system's ability to guarantee an adequate water supply at a time when Ventura city residents are being told to cut water use by one-third.
In addition, despite the fact that travel might be saved by some of an estimated 6,000 students who commute from Ventura County to colleges elsewhere, the report will have to consider the effects of additional air pollution from the estimated 15,000 students who would attend the campus at build-out in 30 years.
The county has an air pollution problem which would be exacerbated by a new university, said Russ Baggerly of the Environmental Coalition.
"Health should not be sacrificed for those values of higher education, if the health effects can be mitigated somewhere else," he said.
The environmental study must also evaluate the geology of the Taylor Ranch, which has fault lines meandering through the property, as well as the archeological value of Chumash burial grounds or artifacts found on the property.