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Judge to Hear Arguments on Ventura Keys Assessment

September 17, 1993|PEGGY Y. LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Kern County judge will hear arguments today on whether the Ventura City Council acted legally when it formed a special assessment district to dredge the Ventura Keys.

Ventura Keys residents contend in a lawsuit that the city should pay most of the cost of cleaning up their back-yard canals because runoff from 28 city drains is largely responsible for polluting the waterways.

City officials argue that the 300 Keys homeowners benefit most from the dredging and should foot three-quarters of the bill. The average annual assessment is $1,733 per household.

When the assessment district was formed in September, 1991, more than 85% of the homeowners filed written protests. Following a bitter two-day public hearing, council members overrode residents' opposition in a 6-1 vote.

Less than a month later, Keys residents filed the lawsuit.

"The city's position is that the formation of the assessment district was done correctly and legally," City Atty. Peter Bulens said. "We don't believe that the city has liability for the silt and other material in the Keys."

Terry Bird, an attorney representing Keys homeowners, called the assessment district "an obvious effort to circumvent Proposition 13," the 1978 tax-cutting initiative.

When the Keys area was developed in the 1960s, a maintenance district was formed requiring property owners to pay an average of $40 annually. Fees were set based on the market value of the home.

Proposition 13, however, dismantled the maintenance district.

Since then, the Keys were dredged in 1982 and 1992. Last year's $2.5-million cleanup was financed by federal, state and city funds, including assessments on Keys residents.

Bird maintains that all Ventura residents benefit from the dredging because their drainage canals empty into the Keys. So costs should be spread out among all city residents, not just Keys homeowners, Bird contends.

Keys homeowners say they don't mind paying some of the dredging and maintenance expenses, but they say 75% is too much.

"The waterways are open to everybody and used extensively," said Dale McCoig, who has lived in the Keys for 18 years. "I think it's an unfair distribution."

The case was delayed after all Ventura County judges disqualified themselves, saying they had relatives, friends or associates who live in the Keys.

Eventually, it was assigned to Kern County Superior Court Judge Sidney Chapin, who will hear the case today.

After hearing attorneys' arguments, Chapin will decide the case based on nearly 3,000 pages of testimony taken from public hearings when the assessment district was formed. He will also consider city staff reports and written objections from Keys homeowners.

Attorneys for both sides say the judge could make a ruling today. He also could take the case under submission and issue a ruling later, or he could ask the attorneys to do more research on issues in the case before he makes a decision.

Keys homeowners have filed another lawsuit against the city, Ventura County, the state and two other agencies, blaming them for allowing silt to collect in the Keys. That lawsuit is being put on hold until the assessment district lawsuit is resolved.

Since the assessment district lawsuit was filed two years ago, city officials have tried to reach a settlement with Keys residents. Bulens said Thursday a settlement was close, but Keys homeowner David Harris said residents have become frustrated trying to resolve the issue out of court.

"I think our best shot is to let the man in the robes decide," Harris said.

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