Construction of a new Ojai Valley golf course could begin within a month now that an appeals court has rejected environmentalists' arguments that the project will use too much drinking water, an attorney for the developer said.
In a decision handed down Tuesday, the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Ventura ruled unanimously that the golf course proposed by the Pasadena-based Farmont Corp. is consistent with county laws.
The firm had hoped to begin construction on the 204-acre golf course and 19,000-square-foot clubhouse on land off California 150 near the Rancho Matilija subdivision after the county Board of Supervisors approved the project two years ago.
But a lawsuit by the Environmental Coalition of Ventura County has dogged the project ever since. A lawyer for the coalition said that the group could file further appeals, but acknowledged that success was doubtful.
The coalition had argued that the board violated the county's General Plan because the project permits the developer to irrigate the golf course with drinking water.
But county officials were satisfied with Farmont's offer to give up its right to use as much as 1,483 acre-feet of Ventura River water and to limit its water use to 417 acre-feet annually.
An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, roughly the amount a family of four uses in a year. Farmont also agreed to use recycled water for the golf course within eight years once a reliable source becomes available. The company has also set aside 1,500 acres of land as permanent open space.
The environmental coalition appealed the lawsuit to the Court of Appeal after a Superior Court judge ruled in favor of Farmont last year.
In a strongly worded decision, the appeals court stated that the coalition's insistence that county water policy be interpreted literally is "nonsensical."
"Essentially, the coalition's argument is one of politics and philosophy," the court wrote.
The court pointed out that Farmont, which owns a total of 2,000 acres on the hillside, could legally use five times the amount of water a golf course needs if it opted instead to plant a citrus grove on the property. The court quoted from the Superior Court's decision, which the justices said they agreed with.
"To deny a project which uses less water than present use because of an ordinance that was enacted to save domestic water seems to me to be a result which makes no sense," Judge William A. Peck wrote in his 1994 decision.
Farmont Corp. and county officials said they hoped the issue is finally settled once and for all.
"I'm delighted to see daylight at the end of the tunnel after such a long, expensive and wasteful legal process," said Farmont attorney Lindsay F. Nielson.
"The fact is, the golf course represents a net savings of water, and we're going to start using recycled water within eight years anyway."
A key county planner defended the county's support for the golf course.
"The county did a good job making sure our ordinances and General Plan were followed," said Keith Turner, director of the Ventura County Planning Department. "It's too bad this all had to be litigated. The golf course's use of water is perfectly appropriate."
The attorney for the coalition called the decision "legal gobbledygook" and said it may be appealed once again--but probably to little effect.
"There's a good chance we're going to petition the court to rehear the case--we have 15 days to do that--but it's definitely an uphill battle," Philip A. Seymour said. "We could also try and take it to the California Supreme Court, but it's very improbable they would hear it. The odds are definitely against it."
Nielson said it was a dead issue.
"At some point these people will realize they are kicking a dead horse," he said. "The environmental impact report was in our favor, the county Planning Commission gave their unanimous support, as did the Board of Supervisors. Now two courts have ruled in their favor. That's not a great batting average for the coalition."