OXNARD — First, ecological concerns slowed a proposal to build 5,000 homes near the nesting grounds of endangered sea birds at Ormond Beach. Then the builder's bankruptcy stalled the hotly debated project. And now the Navy's warnings of noise and potential safety hazards could kill it.
The commanding officer of the Point Mugu Naval Air Weapons Station notified Oxnard officials this week that the Navy is concerned about fighter jets and other military aircraft thundering over houses proposed for adjacent strawberry fields.
Capt. Stephen D. Beal also dispatched teams of Navy officials to study the potential radiation hazard from powerful radar near the housing site, as well as the threat posed by rocket fuel that is so volatile it is stored on a remote spot at the edge of the base.
"We've seen this occur before with other bases, where the zoning changes, housing developments come in and people buy homes," Beal said. "All of a sudden, we become difficult neighbors.
"We cannot tell the city [of Oxnard] what to do with private land," he said. "But we have the Navy's interest to protect. We'd like to see it remain agricultural."
Oxnard Councilman Andres Herrera said Point Mugu's concerns bring a new twist to the controversial housing project, already ensnarled in the bankruptcy troubles of its Orange County-based developer, the Baldwin Co.
Any concerns raised by naval officials, Herrera said, merit the city's close attention, given the Navy's role as the biggest employer of Oxnard residents.
"They do provide economic security for 19,000 people in our area," he said. "It is an integral part of our economic base, and we need to be cautious in what we do."
Ventura County Supervisor John K. Flynn immediately rallied behind the base's worries about urban encroachment. Community leaders worked too hard last year safeguarding the base from closure, he said, to allow its future to be jeopardized by "a project like the one that the Baldwin Co. wants to put there."
"The city of Oxnard ought to think about the jobs created by the Baldwin project compared to the jobs and potential for new jobs at Point Mugu," Flynn said. "The jobs at the Baldwin project will be short-term jobs, and the base jobs are long-term jobs that pay pretty well."
If Navy officials have a serious reservation about Baldwin's project, he said, "it certainly ought to kill it."
Nick Goreley, a Baldwin Co. senior vice president and designated spokesman, was unavailable for comment Wednesday.
Baldwin Co., saddled with about $245 million in debts, is trying to work out its financial problems with creditors in U. S. Bankruptcy Court. Baldwin officials insist that they want to proceed with the development near the ecologically fragile wetlands at Ormond Beach.
But the company has suspended payments for environmental studies required for its enormous development, which includes 5,000 dwellings, a major shopping center, a high school, a junior high and two elementary schools.
Meanwhile, a task force of government officials and environmentalists plans to present a compromise plan for the Ormond Beach area to the Oxnard City Council on May 21.
The plan, assembled without Baldwin's participation, would set up an ecological preserve around some of the wetlands that provide feeding and nesting grounds to several birds and other federally protected species on the brink of extinction.
If accepted by the city as a preferred alternative plan, it would allow Baldwin to build homes on large parcels farther north of the base.
Yet Beal, as commanding officer of the naval air station, said the Navy has concerns because the proposed housing tracts fall directly beneath the flight path of low-flying Navy aircraft.
"For the last 50 years, Navy aircraft have flown over these existing agricultural areas and as low as 500 feet above ground level," he wrote in a letter Tuesday to Oxnard's coastal planner, Deana Walsh.
"These normal flight-pattern operations raise the ambient noise level to as high as 90 decibels. This noise level is equivalent to trucks traveling 15 feet away."
Walsh said the city will make certain that any dwellings are compatible with the Navy base. They can be shielded from the noise, she said, with double-pane windows and other construction techniques.
But Beal is not so sure that would be enough to prevent complaints from future homeowners.
"Residents of Camarillo are concerned about jets flying over at 1,500 feet to 2,000 feet," he said. "You can't tell me that people won't be even more concerned when we have these jets flying 500 to 1,000 feet overhead."
As a weapons testing station, Point Mugu has the Navy's fastest, and noisiest jets, roaring off its runway to get to its missile test range that stretches across 36,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean.
Depending on wind conditions, the aircraft have to make sharp banking turns directly over the proposed housing site immediately after takeoff or on their approach for landing.
"The Navy wants to be a good neighbor and show we care about the community," said Vivian Goo, a Point Mugu official assigned to work on the Ormond Beach proposals. "We are trying to prevent complaints before they happen."
In his letter to Oxnard, Beal said his staff is also studying other potential concerns regarding the storage of rocket fuel and position of radar used to track missiles and aircraft. He promised to have an answer by the end of May.