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District Stands to Gain Orchard, Lose Millions : Oxnard: A provision of the deal that landed the property where the new high school is located may now be falling apart.

October 11, 1994|MAIA DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Oxnard Union High School District could lose $2.1 million and get stuck with a 27-acre lemon grove because a deal tied to the purchase of the new Oxnard High School property threatens to turn sour.

The district initially bought an 80-acre plot on the south side of Gonzales Road near Victoria Avenue, intending to build on 53 acres and sell the rest back to the original owner.

The gleaming new school is almost complete.

But school officials may face trouble reselling the orchard behind the school.

And the trouble is coming from Ventura County planners, who have fought all along against the school district's decision to circumvent county rules and build a school on farmland.

As part of the county's effort to preserve farmland, zoning laws forbid landowners from carving lots smaller than 40 acres in agricultural areas.

Experience has shown, county Planning Director Keith Turner said, that chunks of farmland need to be at least 40 acres to be commercially viable. Smaller lots pose too great a temptation to owners to develop the land rather than farm it.

Over the past two years, Turner said, only one Ventura County property owner has received permission to subdivide property to less than the minimum number of acres.

And the Oxnard Union High School District faces "a formidable task," Turner said, getting approval from the county planning commission when their case comes up for a hearing Oct. 27.

If the planning commission turns them down, school officials vow to appeal to the board of supervisors.

But they are working against a deadline: The agreement for original property owner Maland Enterprises to buy back the orchard from the school district expires on Dec. 31.

Maland Enterprises was only a minority owner of the 80-acre lot sold to the school district. The majority owner was a partnership controlled by Somis developer Ag Land Services. But Maland alone signed the agreement to repurchase the lemon grove.

Now Maland's attorney, Anthony Strauss, said his clients have no interest in purchasing the land once the Dec. 31 deadline passes.

And school officials worry they could get stuck with the property and be unable to recoup the $2.1-million purchase price for the extra acreage.

"We don't want to be in the farming business," Assistant Supt. Bob Brown said. "We want to educate students. We just want to get our money back for the piece of land we didn't want in the first place."

The school district only needed a 50-odd-acre lot to build the new school that will replace the existing Oxnard High School campus on 5th Street.

But the Ag Land Services property measured 80 acres. Carving out a 50-acre piece would have left a remnant smaller than the county's 40-acre minimum.

"We wanted only to buy 50 acres," Supt. Bill Studt said. "They wouldn't let us."

Studt said officials were under pressure at the time to clinch the land deal before they could receive about $28 million in state funds for construction. The state agreed to build the school only if the district paid for the land.

So school officials decided to take their chances--buy the entire 80 acres, begin building the school and then apply to the county planning commission to detach the remaining 27 acres.

The district paid Ag Land and Maland $79,000 per acre, or a total of about $6.3 million, including about $2.1 million that Maland would repay to the district if it buys back the lemon grove.

But county planning officials had resisted from the start the district's proposal to build a high school outside of Oxnard city limits, arguing that it would encourage further development in the agricultural area between Oxnard and Ventura.

Oxnard school officials skirted county planning rules banning development in agricultural areas through state laws that enable school districts to condemn land needed for school construction.

And school officials struck a deal with Ag Land and Maland that would benefit both the district and the property owners if farmland in the area were eventually rezoned for residential development.

Under the agreement, the school district would recoup the $2.1 million if it sells back the lemon orchard. Then, the district could be refunded the full $4.2-million purchase price for the school site, providing that land surrounding the school becomes the site of new homes, Studt said. The developers would repay the school district on a pro rata basis according to the number of new homes built.

Ag Land still controls at least one other major chunk of property near the new school: an 80-acre lot across Gonzalez Road from the new school that is owned by a partnership called Coastal Ranch Properties, according to county planning documents and Maland attorney Strauss.

To school officials, the agreement made good business sense, Studt said. But to county officials, it represents a serious threat to protecting farmland between Oxnard and Ventura.

Now school officials contend county planners are punishing them for building a new school on farmland.

Planning Director Turner denied this: "We will be treating the Oxnard Union High School District just as we treat any other applicant," he said.

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