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County OKs Theater, Golf Course at Park

September 17, 1997|RICHARD WARCHOL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Despite complaints that the county was selling out its natural resources, supervisors unanimously agreed Tuesday to approve the conversion of a county park near Camarillo into a 16,000-seat amphitheater and 18-hole golf course.

Designed to generate $750,000 annually and help create one of the only self-sufficient county park systems in the nation, the project could be constructed and open for concerts by next summer.

Approval of the project's environmental impact report and use permits by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday marked the end of a two-year planning process.

"It's a very big step," said Randy Brogan, senior vice president of Avalon Productions, which will operate the county's first major outdoor concert venue.

Still, the project faces stiff scrutiny from federal agencies charged with protecting the nation's wetlands and endangered species.

Federal officials remain concerned over the project's impacts to the dudleya veritye, a plant that thrives in the park's rocky outcroppings and is considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act. They worried that car exhaust from 6,000 backed-up cars could choke lichen that serve as a nursery for the protected plant's seedlings.

County officials may yet try to redesign the project to reduce the impact on wetlands to below 3 acres. Doing so could qualify the project for a fast-track permit from the Army Corps of Engineers.

However, the project as planned would impact slightly less than 3 acres of wetlands on the park grounds, and federal officials fear that grading, construction and fire protection work could push the wetland impact over the 3-acre threshold and require a more detailed permit that could take more than four months to process.

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Concerned about impacts to the fragile ecosystem of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, National Park Service ecologist Raymond M. Sauvajot said his agency will ask later this week that the Army Corps of Engineers require the more lengthy permit process.

"We strongly feel that careful evaluation of these issues is in the public's interest," he said.

But word that the project still faces considerable roadblocks did little to assuage the fears of some residents of Camarillo and Thousand Oaks, who said the county did a poor job of alerting them that the project was being considered.

Some took direct aim at the county policy that is driving the golf course and amphitheater project.

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

That left parks officials scrambling for ways to transform parks into moneymakers by inviting recreational development in some locations.

"Do we really need to turn this park into a cash cow for a park system that perhaps could be saved another way?" Camarillo resident Chris Spangenberg asked.

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Pamela Culhane of Camarillo regretted seeing the policy force the loss of one of the county's few accessible wild areas, a place where she regularly hikes to spot the likes of deer, coyotes, hawks and owls.

"Projects like this are the beginning of the creation of an Irvine North," she said. "It puts the parks system in the wrong business. It forces the parks to be developers."

Supervisors, however, said the project's benefits--offering new recreational outlets for county residents while saving the cash-strapped parks system--outweighed any negative impacts.

"The benefits I see would be the ability to improve our parks system," said Supervisor Frank Schillo, whose district includes the proposed project. "Even though some people say we shouldn't be caring about money for parks and to find some other way, I guess those might be the same people that would object to charging them for their ability to use [the parks]."

Supervisor Kathy Long had county parks officials point out that 60% of the 375-acre project area would be developed. The rest, said Blake Boyle, parks department deputy director, would remain open for public use.

"As long as they don't get hit by a golf ball, I'm sure they'll be welcomed to come out and enjoy the park," he said.

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Officials expect the 18-hole golf course to handle 200 rounds of golf daily. With 12,000 reserved seats and 4,000 lawn seats, the concert venue would be able under county permits to operate up to 30 events annually.

But to minimize traffic impacts on two-lane Lewis Road, which would serve the amphitheater, only eight sellouts would be allowed each year.

Just 12,000 tickets would be sold for the remaining 22 events, officials said.

Avalon Productions and golf course developer C.E.C. Enterprises will hold 40-year leases with options for two 10-year extensions.

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

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

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