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Settlement Near on Dredging in Ventura Keys : Litigation: City says many homeowners support agreement over paying for removal of silt from back-yard canals.


Ventura city leaders announced Tuesday that they are one step closer to reaching a settlement with homeowners over a lawsuit about who should pay for dredging the silt in the Ventura Keys.

After months of lobbying and negotiating with Keys residents, city officials have decided that there is enough support among property owners for a settlement to merit drafting a formal agreement.

Some Keys homeowners say they are tired of fighting and spending thousands of dollars in legal fees to contest who should dredge their back-yard canals. About one-third of Keys property owners have filed lawsuits against the city and county since 1991, when the council levied assessments on homeowners to cover dredging costs.

"I'm ready to settle," said David Harris, a vocal opponent of the city. "There are very few people who are enthusiastic about the settlement, but we don't have unlimited time, and we don't have unlimited funds. We've been worn down."

City officials said 229 Keys property owners support a settlement proposal that has been circulating since September. A formal settlement agreement is expected to be distributed in May for Keys residents to sign.

But the deal could still fall apart because there are at least 11 holdouts who are not in support of the settlement, and 68 homeowners who have not responded to the proposal. City leaders said they want all Keys property owners to sign the settlement.

"We hope they'll come to their senses," Councilman Gregory L. Carson said, referring to the holdouts. "This is a settlement with everybody, and there may not be an offer any more."

If all homeowners do not agree to the settlement, the council will have to decide whether to withdraw the offer and go to court, renegotiate the offer, or settle with some homeowners and continue fighting others in court, City Atty. Peter D. Bulens said.

Keys residents have maintained for years that they should not have to pay for dredging because runoff from the county's Arundell Barranca and 28 city storm drains is responsible for dumping mud and other pollutants into the waterways.

Although about 100 property owners have sued the city and county, the settlement is being offered to all 300 homeowners because city officials are hoping to ward off future lawsuits.

Dick Massa, a Keys resident who did not respond to the settlement proposal, is not in favor of it because homeowners would be responsible for maintaining the rock walls in their back-yard canals, which could be very expensive, he said.

The settlement also calls for reducing the average annual assessment from $1,733 per property to $685, with a guarantee that the fee will increase by no more than $64 per year.

The city would pay the $2.5-million dredging costs for 1992--which would otherwise be covered by the assessed fees on property owners.

In turn, property owners would agree to drop their lawsuits against the city and pledge not to file future lawsuits relating to the Keys pollution.

The city and Keys homeowners have already gone one round in court. Residents lost a lawsuit last year over whether the city has the authority to assess homeowners extra taxes to pay for dredging their canals.

Massa said he thinks that most homeowners will eventually sign the settlement, including himself.

"I'll probably knuckle under," he said. "The city could tie us up for 20 years in court. It's blackmail, really. If you sign the settlement, your assessment will be around $600. If you don't, it will be about $1,800. Who's not going to take that?"

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