Ventura officials say they want the city to annex 87 acres of city-owned lemon and avocado orchards to avoid county property taxes, but have no plans to convert the property from farmland until the year 2010.
But developer Ron Hertel has different ideas. He wants to swap agricultural land that he owns with the city's land, and put up single-family houses on city land. In exchange, Hertel would give Ventura $2 million to build a park on 92 acres of celery fields that he owns at Telephone and Kimball roads.
And several council members have expressed interest in Hertel's land-swap proposal. At a public meeting in September, the council voted to send Hertel's proposal to the housing subcommittee for review.
"I'm inclined to really look at it and see if we can incorporate it into our city plan," Mayor Gregory L. Carson said Friday. "I think that this other location would make a good location for a park. We don't have a deal yet."
Hertel said he is optimistic that the city will find his offer too attractive to ignore.
"They know some controlled growth has to happen," Hertel said. "We're trying to work out something good for both sides. We're obviously trying to sweeten the pot to try to make them more enthusiastic."
Hertel and city staff say the council will not seriously discuss the proposal until after Dec. 6, when two newly elected council members are seated.
But staffers are moving forward with plans to annex the 87-acre parcel. On Tuesday, the Ventura Planning Commission will consider making a recommendation about the annexation.
According to the city's Comprehensive Plan, that land is supposed to stay in agricultural use until the year 2010. City officials say they are doing it so they can avoid paying $20,000 annually in property taxes to the county. They say they have no plans to convert it from farmland unless the council decides otherwise.
"We're trying to annex it before tax time in April," Assistant Planner Marion Thompson said. "This has nothing to do with the Hertel stuff."
If the annexation is approved by the council and the county's Local Agency Formation Commission, it would be completed within six months, Thompson said.
If Hertel is successful in persuading the council, houses could be built on the city parcel in two years at the earliest, said Everett Millais, community development director. If the council wishes, it can amend the Comprehensive Plan to accommodate Hertel's land-swap proposal, Millais said.
Hertel said his property at the northwest corner of Telephone and Kimball roads is closer to major roads and the Santa Paula Freeway than the city-owned parcel.
"It's a better place for a park, and it's less than a mile from the County Government Center, and all the bike paths would intersect it," Hertel said. "I think we would be doing them a favor by trading it."
In return, Hertel said he would be able to develop land that would not otherwise be developed. When he purchased his property 21 years ago, it was with the intention of building houses on it, Hertel said.
Two years after he bought it, the zoning on the land was changed from residential to agricultural, Hertel said. Since then, Hertel has been leasing it to farmers for row crops.
The city has also been leasing its parcel for farming since it purchased the land from an English coal miners union in 1987, Millais said.
In February, the city entered a five-year lease agreement with Santana Ranches to operate the lemon and avocado grove, but owner Jaime Santana came back a few months later and asked to be released from the agreement because the quality of the fruit was so poor.
City officials in April negotiated a deal with Santana to continue taking care of the land at no expense to the city. Santana would pay the city $1 a year for the rent, instead of the $20,880 that was originally agreed upon. According to the agreement, Santana would farm the land at his own cost and his profits would come from any crops that he could glean.
Santana is Councilman Gary Tuttle's brother-in-law. Tuttle has abstained from any votes regarding the city parcel.
Santana estimated that he has spent about $20,000 in pruning and irrigating the 22 acres of avocados and 65 acres of lemons on the city parcel.
"It's an old orchard," Santana said. "I couldn't even afford to pick the avocados this year. I don't foresee making any money for a few years."
Santana criticized Hertel's proposal, saying that Hertel would make a huge profit on the deal and argued that agricultural land in Ventura should be saved.
But Hertel points out that south of the city parcel lies a park and condominium complex. His company is also building single-family houses to the west of the city land. Thus, the area he wants to develop is already surrounded on two sides by residential housing and agriculture to the north and east, Hertel said. Millais agreed.
"It's not an outrageous kind of request. He's not asking to build in the middle of a river or some other sensitive habitat."