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Santa Paula OKs Suit to Block Jail in Orchard : Agriculture: The city says the county violated its General Plan when it condemned and purchased a 157-acre field for a proposed 752-inmate facility west of the community.

January 23, 1991|JOANNA M. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a move to block a county proposal for a new jail on prime agricultural land, the Santa Paula City Council voted Tuesday to file suit against Ventura County.

The county violated its General Plan and commitments to preserve agriculture in Ventura County when it rezoned the land to allow the condemnation and purchase of a 157-acre lemon orchard southwest of Santa Paula for the jail site, Santa Paula city officials contended.

The county also failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act when it did not study the environmental impact in depth on the Todd Road site before it purchased the land, the lawsuit will contend.

The city also will ask the county to set aside its condemnation of the property and return it to its previous owner. City Atty. Phillip H. Romney could not say when the lawsuit would be filed.

The county, whose central jail in Ventura often carries three times its 400-inmate capacity, wants to build a jail to house 752 prisoners between Todd and Briggs roads south of California 126.

But the Santa Paula City Council, whose members have received calls from constituents opposing the plan, voted 3 to 0 to file suit against the county. Two members were absent.

"Our major concern is that prime agriculture land is being used," Councilwoman Margaret Ely said. "Santa Paula is very jealous of the agriculture land that surrounds it."

Santa Paula-area ranchers denounced the county jail plans Tuesday and applauded the city's action to protect their industry. There are concerns that a jail in the area would bring increased traffic, dust and restrictions on farming.

"Once the county breaks that land open for development, it's just a never-ending process of easing agriculture out," said lemon rancher Robert Pinkerton, who farms near the jail site.

Lemon grower Frank Brucker, who since 1954 has owned land that abuts the jail site, said inmates would object to the substantial after-dark noise caused by wind machines to prevent frost damage. He also said vandalism to his machines would increase with easier access from new roads in the area.

"I don't have that much time left, but I just don't want to fight that kind of battle," the 70-year-old rancher said.

Robert L. Braitman, the county's jail project coordinator and executive officer of the Local Agency Formation Commission, said the loss of farmland to provide space for a jail is unfortunate but necessary.

"That's why the Board of Supervisors found the decision so agonizing," he said. "What makes Ventura County a nice place to live is not only the open space and agriculture but also that it is relatively free of crime." A new jail is necessary to maintain that status, he said.

The county studied five sites before it chose the Todd Road site, condemned the property and negotiated the purchase from Michael Brucker for $2.9 million.

In October, county supervisors voted to change the county General Plan and the zoning on the property from agriculture to open space to accommodate the $52-million jail. Consultants are preparing a study on the environmental consequences of building at the Todd Road site. The report is expected to be completed this spring.

After a round of public comments on the report, the Board of Supervisors will vote this summer whether to approve the project.

Braitman said the county followed all the correct procedures and legal obligations when it changed the zoning and the General Plan. Even the county's pledge to help preserve agriculture through a greenbelt agreement with the cities of Santa Paula and Ventura has not been violated, Braitman said.

"The cities agree not to annex the greenbelt, and the county pledges to permit only open space and agriculture uses," he said. "The jail is a permitted use in an area zoned for open space."

But Tim McGrath, a Ventura County native who has owned property in the area for 12 years, cited the Mission Rock Road industrial area as a bad example of the county's use of open space.

The area, about half a mile east of the jail site, north of the Santa Clara River and south of lemon orchards, includes petroleum operations and a number of automobile junkyards. At the easternmost end of the area beyond the junkyards, grassy areas near the river's edge are littered with abandoned trucks, old tires and piles of trash.

"This whole thing probably started with one request for a conditional use permit," McGrath said, gazing at the dozen small buildings that line Mission Rock Road. "Now look at it."

Pinkerton said such permits are a cancer within agricultural areas.

"So we get real concerned when the county says it's going to operate a jail . . . on land zoned for open space," he said.

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