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IN LAND THEY TRUST : Middle Ground : A builder's former opponents may end up making a deal to buy his languishing property.

November 29, 1990|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Builder John J. Schuck and the Ojai Valley's environmental leaders may stand on opposite sides of Besant Meadow, but they could still end up doing business together.

The meadow, a largely unimproved 25-acre property in Meiners Oaks, is owned by Schuck's Santa Barbara firm, Franciscan West Developments. For five years, Schuck fought in city offices, county offices and state courtrooms for the chance to build a residential development on the site.

Local officials opposed him, insisting that his plans for 50 houses conflicted with their development limits and would tangle already troublesome traffic on California 33. Finally, after the state Supreme Court declined to hear his lawsuit against Ventura County, Schuck withdrew his building plans Nov. 8.

Now Schuck is looking to sell and his old adversaries are, at least in theory, among the potential buyers.

The Besant Meadow Preservation Group, led by President Richard Handley, is trying to raise the money and may end up working with the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy.

"We have targeted that property as a potential acquisition," said Philip I. Moncharsh, president of the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy.

Schuck has been advertising the acreage in the Wall Street Journal since mid-October at "a soft $1.6 million." However, he said, he has told Handley that he would probably sell to the group for between $750,000 and $1 million.

Handley, a teacher in Ojai, has been fighting against development on the property for five years, arguing that it should be left open because of its historic value as a theosophist gathering place, its proximity to three schools and its location near a flood plain.

Since October, Handley and his confederates in the Besant Meadow Preservation Group have been looking for a way to buy the property. They envision a trail that would link Meiners Oaks to Ojai's popular bike and horse trail, a community park area for recreational use and a bird habitat area that would include the property's eucalyptus grove.

But so far, the campaign's coffers are empty.

"We've been a group that's been going to hearings on environmental impact reports. We haven't been raising money. So we have to retool," Handley said. The Besant Meadow group, he said, is looking for a source, either a wealthy private donor or a government agency with money in the bank, to step forward with the lion's share of the money.

"We could possibly raise funds for the park from one entity, funds for the trail from another and funds for the habitat from a third," Handley said. But, he added, "we're not going to try to do a pancake breakfast to buy this land. . . . It would be too hard and too heartbreaking."

The Ojai Valley Land Conservancy is not much wealthier than the Besant Meadow group and has been concentrating in recent months on other land transactions. But the conservancy's 43-member board includes many of Ojai's most affluent citizens, and the group has just recently started its first major fund-raising campaign.

And in a recent committee meeting, Moncharsh said, several conservancy board members indicated interest in the Besant Meadow site.

Schuck, who hopes to sell the property within six months, said he would rule no one out. But since the building of almost anything but a park on the property has been effectively blocked, Schuck said, he's not sure that the environmental groups will work up the necessary enthusiasm--and money--to buy the land.

The alternative, Schuck noted, is to sell the site to a long-term investor who would wait five or 10 years and count on a future Board of Supervisors to be more flexible about traffic.

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