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ON THE ROAD

Urban Sprawl Sours Grower on Lemon Grove

July 21, 1994|LEONARD REED | Leonard Reed is a Times staff writer

VENTURA — The lemons were here as long as anybody can remember. That includes Ernie Nichols, who has been farming this 42-acre parcel for 64 years.

The yield is quite good: always 1,000 boxes an acre annually, requisite for profitability, and usually more. One year, Nichols packed 1,400 boxes an acre.

"That was something," he says. "That's real profit, and I don't mind telling you so."

But the good times are over here at the Nichols Ranch.

The property, just north of the Santa Paula Freeway at Kimball Road, used to be 50 acres in size. Through the 1980s, however, government agencies decided they needed peripheral slices of the orchards for the public good. So they'd condemn and buy a piece to widen Kimball Road. A piece for a bike path. Two pieces for an expanded interchange of the freeway at Kimball Road. Yet another for the widening of Telegraph Road, to the north.

Quickly, a housing development went in on the west border of the property. Same thing on the north side. Same thing to the east. To the south, four lanes of the 126, sealing off the Nichols orchards for good, entombing it in a sea of homes with swing sets, RVs, patio umbrellas.

For a while everybody was happy. An orchard surrounded by houses is an unwitting courtyard--a piece of shiny green luck for those who throw open the bedroom window and smell lemons. And Ernie Nichols still packed fruit at a rate that always turned a profit.

*

It couldn't last. Things quickly shook out as they do when tidy homes abut farmland, when Sears lawn mowers roll alongside John Deer insecticide spray equipment. Things in lemon heaven go sour.

Kids do what kids are supposed to do--they sneak in at night to explore. Sometimes, they also do what they're not supposed to do and tinker with valves that regulate the irrigation systems, leaving Nichols with a flooded orchard. Or sometimes, trespassers climb the trees, crack branches or fall and crack their own limbs--in falling, one actually hit an electric line, got burned from it, and sued. Periodically, Nichols hires all-night watchmen to keep people out and their lawyers away.

More problematic are the spraying operations, which include aerial applications. Nichols has them under control, he says wryly, "as far as lemons are concerned."

What he means is that he manages not to over-spray the orchards, ensuring that neighboring yards go unaffected, and he strictly adheres to keeping people--including his workers--out of the fenced-in orchards for four days following the spraying.

But that doesn't mean someone or someone's pet won't find a way in and, in the trespassing, cover themselves in toxic chemicals. And get sick and hold Ernie Nichols responsible.

"I think about it a lot," says Nichols. "It didn't used to be that you had to worry much about it. But today, especially when we're spraying, I worry about it a lot. I don't want anyone hurt. And I don't want anyone coming after me."

Nichols pauses a moment.

"I love those orchards. I'd love to keep farming them. But the truth is, it's just not farmland anymore. It's where people live. It's where Ventura expanded to. Hell, Ventura's expanded beyond me."

*

Ernie Nichols appeared recently before the Ventura City Planning Commission and was turned down in his request to build houses where his lemon trees now stand.

That is, Nichols has optioned out his entire 42 acres to a developer who proposes to bulldoze the property and build 227 fancy Victorian-styled single-family homes--but the planners chose to earmark this year's precious few new-home allotments to competing projects, one of them a mobile home park on Telephone Road.

Nichols, appearing in a medium-blue suit that matched his penetrating aquamarine eyes, told the planners plainly: "I'd prefer to keep farming it. But it's gotten impossible. So I ask you to consider this." He also gently reminded them that in 1989 the very same commission acknowledged, by vote, the eastward momentum of development by making his land and much of the land surrounding it suitable for conversion to residential development. Indeed, his land is not even within a designated greenbelt.

Now Nichols, a trim and sharp 86, finds himself in a Catch-22. He's one of the last of the old-line ranchers to give in to the development pressure that has already eclipsed and transformed his property, yet he's told to take a hike, go home and tend those lemons, keep that lifetime of equity buried in the soil.

You'd think Ernie Nichols would be very upset. But he's not.

Because Nichols knows one key thing: It's the Ventura City Council that makes the final decision on who gets to build houses. And the council in recent years has listened to the Planning Commission about as well as Ralph listened to Alice in the "Honeymooners."

"Oh, it's hard to read," says Nichols. "It goes to the council late this month, and all these projects are viewed again. People spar for position. And, you know, anything can happen."

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