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County Considers Amphitheater, Golf Course EIR

September 13, 1997|RICHARD WARCHOL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Amid strong opposition from conservationists, county supervisors Tuesday will consider approving an environmental study that would allow developers to transform a county park near Camarillo into a 16,000-seat amphitheater and 18-hole golf course.

Trumpeting the project as a way to generate an estimated $750,000 annually within five years of operation, county parks officials say the entertainment venue will go a long way toward creating one of the only self-sufficient county parks systems in the nation.

But the project won't play out without a few sour notes.

Opponents continue to chastise the project and the effort to turn public parks into moneymakers, even if it means paving over open space.

"It is really going to boil down to what is good public policy," said the Environmental Defense Center's Carla Bard, one of the project's most outspoken critics. "If the board wants to, it can ram it through and disregard any environmental consequences in the end."

County officials, however, say the environmental document and a recent redesign of the project have done much to minimize impacts to the 370-acre park's environment and surrounding areas.

Supervisors will consider the project during a 1:30 p.m. public hearing Tuesday at the County Government Center in Ventura.

Even if the board approves the environmental report and accompanying use permits, the project still faces stiff scrutiny from federal agencies charged with protecting the nation's wetlands and endangered species.

An endangered plant--the Dudleya veritye--thrives in the park's rocky outcroppings where few other plants dare to grow. The problem, however, is the lichen that also manage to survive there serve as a crib for the protected plant's seedlings. And lichen, plant biologists say, hate car exhaust.

Further, there are strict county fire codes requiring that roadside brush be cleared. But some of the planned roads and parking lots are so near the wetlands that simply chopping back the brush can be a federal offense.

County officials believe they can meet the fire protection codes without impacting wetlands. And if they can keep the impact on wetlands below three acres, officials can qualify the project for a fast-track permit from the Army Corps of Engineers instead of a more detailed permit that could take months to process.

Currently, the wetland impact stands at 2.998 acres.

"Sometimes it does come down to inches," said Blake Boyle, deputy director of the county Parks Department.

But it's too close for the Army engineering corps, which is requiring the county to provide more data proving the impact level.

Bruce Henderson, a senior project manager with the federal agency, said the county may have to scale back the project even further.

"It can still be fine-tuned," Henderson said. "It could be something like trimming a fairway or two. It could be real simple. It could just be more of a challenge to the developers."

County officials say measures in the environmental impact report the board will consider approving Tuesday minimize the most common complaints about the project: noise, traffic and biological impacts.

The document calls for Avalon Productions, the company that would operate the amphitheater, to craft a noise abatement plan to be approved by the county. It also requires the operator to create a shuttle bus program and develop a traffic plan subject to approval by both the county and city of Camarillo.

Still, even with the county's attempts to minimize impacts to the park's biological resources, groups such as the 700-member Ventura Audubon Society remain critical.

Reed V. Smith of Oxnard, conservation chairman of the local Audubon Society, said the environmental document does well to describe the park's diverse biology, but offers little toward protecting it.

"I'm impressed by the discussion of the [biological] issues, but the response is, 'Well, yeah, but we want to do it, so we'll do it anyway,' " Smith said. "You pave it over, it's not going to be good for birds anymore, or any other wildlife. They just seem to underemphasize the importance of some of the values that I have."

Boyle of the county's Parks Department said his agency has little choice but to invite recreational development into some of the county's parks in order to keep the rest of the 27-park system afloat.

For years the county parks system has been run with an $800,000 subsidy from Channel Islands Harbor. But last year supervisors voted to cut that umbilical cord in an effort to boost investment in the harbor.

That left parks officials scrambling for ways to turn grass, forests, rocks and picnic tables into moneymakers.

When Boyle explains the policy to community groups, he drops pennies into people's palms.

"I tell them they're holding one cent more than I receive in tax support," he said.

If they approve the environmental report, supervisors will then consider signing 40-year lease agreements with Avalon Productions and golf course developer C.E.C. Enterprises.

Under the agreements, the developers would assume the estimated $12-million to $15-million construction costs in exchange for the county land.

The county, in turn, would get percentage shares of greens fees, food and pro shop sales and concert ticket surcharges that would range between $1 to $2.25 per ticket, depending on annual concert turnout.

Although she won't decide how to vote until after Tuesday's testimony, Supervisor Kathy Long said she is "certainly strongly in support of the project."

"I think it's a good project for the taxpayers," she said. "All of the site will be developed by the vendors. And we will have a lease agreement with the vendor with a continuing source of income to go back into the park system."

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