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Not a Sweet Deal : Oxnard High School's Lemon Orchard Puts District in a Squeeze

July 25, 1996|ERIC WAHLGREN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

OXNARD — When local zoning rules handed them a lemon, Oxnard high school district officials were forced to make lemonade.

County planning regulations forbid the district from selling a nearly 27-acre lemon orchard it bought as part of a larger Gonzales Road plot where it built the new Oxnard High School.

So district officials hired a farmer to cultivate the citrus, which brings in $18,000 to $30,000 a year for the district, depending on the harvest.

But officials estimate that keeping the lemon orchard forces the district to spend an extra $175,000 annually to repay the bonds that were issued to buy the high school site.

"It is nowhere close to breaking even," Richard Canady, assistant superintendent for business services, said Wednesday night during a district board meeting.

If the parcel could instead be sold, he said, the district could raise at least $2.1 million to build a swimming pool it has long promised to Oxnard High students.

"It certainly has had a negative impact on our ability to build [a] swimming pool" at the school, he said before the meeting. "But long-term, land is a pretty good investment over time."

Land proved to be a very good investment at Beverly Hills High, where oil fields were discovered beneath the campus. In the early '90s, oil wells generated more than $275,000 in annual revenues for that school district, pumping money into its budget.

But Oxnard district officials have not found similar riches with lemons and are hoping the county some day will bend its zoning laws that prohibit landowners from creating lots smaller than 40 acres in areas zoned for agriculture.

Yet that rule--which the county says protects farmland and discourages development--might not change any time soon.

"The county is probably not going to initiate the change," said Jeff Walker, a county planning official.

Walker noted that county supervisors rejected the district's 1994 bid to sell the grove back to the original landowner for $2.1 million, citing their desire to preserve county agriculture.

The district might have a shot at eventually selling the parcel if the city of Oxnard chooses to annex the land--now in an unincorporated county area--but Oxnard officials have yet to decide on the issue.

So district leaders have resigned themselves to staying in the farming business for a while and are now studying whether they can squeeze more money out of the parcel by changing the crop.

"The way it stands now, I don't think we have seen too much profit off of it," said district trustee Jean Daily-Underwood, who is spearheading the study.

Daily-Underwood said the district may end up merely replanting younger citrus trees--the orchard is more than 40 years old in some parts--or putting in row crops.

The land deal first got sticky in 1992, when school officials bought a nearly 80-acre parcel that included the 26.6-acre orchard. The land is south of Gonzales Road, between Patterson Road and Victoria Avenue.

The district only needed about 53 acres to build the $40-million campus, but officials said they could not find acceptable properties of exactly the right size.

So officials ended up buying the full 80 acres for about $6 million from its two owners, Ag Land Services and Maland Enterprises, as a way to meet the county's minimum 40-acre requirement.

But because the land was zoned for agriculture, the district also had to condemn the property by using a state law that allows school districts to take such action to allow for new school construction. As part of the district's deal with the landowners, Maland Enterprises had agreed to buy back the 26.6 acres the school district would not need for Oxnard High.

But for that subsequent sale to go through, the county would have needed to amend its zoning policies to permit an agriculture parcel of less than 40 acres.

Supervisor Maggie Kildee said she faults the district for first making a deal with the landowners and expecting the county to sign off on a zoning variance for the orchard before seeking county approval for the plan.

"I think that those things need to be worked out ahead of time instead of after the fact," Kildee said. "If not, the zoning is meaningless."

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