Environmentalists will ask a Superior Court judge today to overturn a permit granted by Ventura County that they say would wrongly allow for the use of drinking water to irrigate a private golf course.
The Environmental Coalition of Ventura County sued the county last year after the Board of Supervisors upheld a Planning Commission ruling allowing development of the Farmont golf resort on 200 acres near Ojai.
Proposed by a Japanese broadcasting tycoon, the Farmont project would include a golf course, 19,000-square-foot clubhouse and 4,000-square-foot maintenance building.
Final arguments in the case will be heard this morning by Ventura County Superior Court Judge William A. Peck, who could issue an immediate ruling or take the matter under submission.
The Farmont suit is one of a series of challenges to development and growth filed by activists in the Ojai Valley. In recent years, local environmentalists have thwarted a $100-million refinery expansion, helped kill construction of a state university at Taylor Ranch and stopped a proposed landfill at Weldon Canyon.
Presently, upper Ojai residents are fighting the federal government over a microwave-emitting radar tower recently erected in their area.
In the Farmont challenge, coalition members say the county violated its own water policy by granting the Farmont Corp. permission to build the golf course on land designated as open space in the county's General Plan.
"Where feasible, reclaimed water shall be utilized for new golf courses," the county policy states.
Reclaimed water comes from sewage treatment plants, but there is no source of such water near Farmont. The development's county permit allows it to use drinking water for irrigation until 2001, at which time it would have to use reclaimed water for most irrigation needs.
The suit also contends that the proposed clubhouse is too big for the area and that it would be open until late in the evening, causing noise and traffic problems.
"It's just a simple case of the board not following its own rules and not following its own priorities," said Santa Barbara attorney Philip A. Seymour, who represents the coalition.
"They are trying to create this massive resort-type facility that's not allowed," Seymour said. "It's a scenic, rural area. It's not an appropriate place for a golf course."
The developers, however, say a golf course is one of the least obtrusive uses for the property.
Its clubhouse would be one-third the size of the Sherwood Country Club facility near Thousand Oaks and half the size of the clubhouse at Spanish Hills near Camarillo, a Farmont attorney pointed out.
"If they would stand back and look at the benefits of this, they would see that it's a fairly benign use of land--other than nothing at all," said attorney Lindsay F. Nielson, who represents the development firm.
"But if it's nothing at all, they'd better buy the property," he said.
Assistant County Counsel Robert R. Orellana said he will attend today's hearing, but said Farmont lawyers will argue the case. Nonetheless, he defended the county's position.
"They're taking a literalist view of the policy and taking it to an unjust extreme," Orellana said of the environmentalists. "The Farmont project will save a great deal of water."
Irrigating the private golf course would divert hundreds of acre-feet of potable water each year from residential or other uses, the suit claims. An acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons.
"There is currently an overdraft in the ground-water basins in the Ojai, and an acknowledged long-term shortage of water," the complaint alleges.
But the property owners and county officials contend that a golf course would use barely 20% of the water required for lemon or orange trees--uses already allowable under the General Plan.
"We can use five times the water to plant citrus, and there's no requirement for any approval at all," Nielson said. "By approving the (use permit), the county has put a limitation on the water we have rights to."
The company also agreed to grant an easement on about 1,500 acres it owns nearby to the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy--another concession that ensures that the bulk of Farmont's 2,000 acres remains undeveloped, Nielson said.
Under approval conditions imposed by the county, Farmont agreed to spend up to $600,000 to build a plant or water line to get reclaimed water to the site by the 2001 deadline.
That contribution "is another area in which the project will prove to be a benefit to the community," Nielson said in a legal brief to Peck.
A feasibility study is under way to determine how best to irrigate the golf course with reclaimed water.
But Eric J. Oltmann, general manager of the Ojai Valley Sanitary District, which administers waste-water treatment throughout the valley, said any satellite or package treatment plant would cost far more than $600,000.
"We're not paying for it, that's for sure," Oltmann said. "We've got a whole lot of other problems that are more significant."
The sanitary district is under a state order to better treat the water it releases into the Ventura River--an improvement project with a $27-million price tag, Oltmann said.
Farmont opponents complain that the county permit does not require the company to cease its operations if it fails to use reclaimed water for irrigation by 2001.
"Once the Farmont golf course has been constructed . . . it is highly unlikely that it would be shut down by an irresolute board for failure to secure a reclaimed water supply," the suit contends.
But county planners are still comfortable with the conditions imposed for the use permit.
"It's very clear what the obligations of Farmont are," Planner Patrick Richards said. "If they proceed with implementing the project and open their doors, the bottom line is they've got to provide that reclaimed water."