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Ventura Seeks to Halt Oxnard Plan for Redevelopment

Lawsuit: Plaintiffs argue new proposal is a ruse to build up failed Town Center, thereby hurting their own Buenaventura Mall.

May 09, 1998|RICHARD WARCHOL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VENTURA — The latest salvo in the county's long-running sales tax war was fired Friday by Ventura, which sued neighboring Oxnard over a plan that declares 293 acres of farmland "blighted" and ripe for redevelopment.

In a suit filed in Ventura County Superior Court, Ventura contends that Oxnard's recently approved 2,229-acre, $438-million redevelopment plan--the Historical Enhancement and Revitalization of Oxnard--flouts state environmental and redevelopment law.

Ventura officials claim that by including the failed Town Center office and retail complex in its fifth redevelopment zone, Oxnard is trying to thwart the expansion of Ventura's Buenaventura Mall, having failed to do so in a referendum and a previous lawsuit.

"The Town Center has consistently been advanced by Oxnard as the alternative to the Buenaventura Mall," Ventura City Atty. Bob Boehm said Friday. "We needed to take this action. We need to prevent Oxnard from continuing its attack on the mall."

The suit is the latest in a dispute between the cities that dates from planning of the Town Center in the mid-1980s.

In 1985, Ventura sued Oxnard over a proposed mall at the Town Center. The suit was settled when Oxnard agreed to put off the mall's development until the Santa Clara Bridge, which connects the two cities, was widened.

A decade later, Ventura approved the expansion of its own mall, a move that prompted a lawsuit from its neighbor to the south. Oxnard contended that Ventura had lured two major stores from the city with no thought to the regional impact of the move.

Oxnard lost in Superior Court, but has appealed the decision. A ruling is expected in late May or June.

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The latest suit centers on Oxnard's contention that an undeveloped slice of farmland near the Town Center office complex is "blighted" and consequently eligible for redevelopment.

Oxnard officials say the land was to be developed as part of the $500-million Town Center project, which called for the mall, several office buildings, restaurants and a cultural arts center.

However, the project foundered during the economic downturn of the early 1990s. Only two buildings had gone up.

The developers backed off, leaving Oxnard with millions of dollars invested in roads, utilities and storm drains and nothing more to serve than two office buildings and a farm.

Ventura leaders say the inclusion of the farmland and Town Center in Oxnard's latest redevelopment plan is nothing more than a ruse to spark development of the Town Center.

"It's vacant land," Ventura Mayor Jim Friedman said Friday. "You can't redevelop something you've never developed. It's as simple as that."

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In the lawsuit, Ventura argues that redevelopment would allow Oxnard to speed construction of more than 3.2 million square feet of commercial, retail and office space, plus more than 1,000 hotel rooms.

"Inclusion of the Town Center site as part of the redevelopment project is just a continuation of Oxnard's campaign to torpedo the expansion of the Buenaventura Mall," Ventura City Councilman Sandy Smith said in a City Hall press release announcing the suit.

Under state law, cities can designate areas as physically or economically blighted and establish redevelopment districts.

The districts can then divert a portion of property taxes to a special fund and invest it in the community. Cities often borrow against that fund to finance development and spur private investment.

Oxnard City Atty. Gary Gillig said Friday he is confident that his city will prevail.

"We were extremely careful to make sure every aspect of state law was complied with," Gillig said.

The Oxnard City Council approved the redevelopment plan--the city's fifth and largest--March 24 after months of contention.

The area spans 7% of the city and is to be redeveloped over 30 years.

It hopscotches south from the Town Center and Wagon Wheel area and includes the Oxnard Airport as well as large, 30- to 40-year-old tracts along Oxnard Boulevard and Saviers Road.

Declining property values, retail sales and rents have made for a vicious cycle of blight, city officials say.

"It is unfortunate that the city of Ventura would choose to file a lawsuit on a redevelopment plan primarily designed to help the physically and economically deteriorating, older, less advantaged areas of our city," Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez said in a statement issued Friday.

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Ventura city leaders said they have no problems with Oxnard's plans to redevelop aging, blighted sections of the city.

But the Town Center is another story.

As late as this week, Ventura officials told their counterparts in Oxnard that they would refrain from filing suit if Oxnard dropped the Town Center area from its redevelopment area.

During an emergency closed session on Wednesday, a unanimous Ventura City Council--with councilmen Jim Monahan and Jack Tingstrom absent--agreed to file the suit.

The council decided "reluctantly" to file the suit today to satisfy the statute of limitations on the city's ability to sue Oxnard over environmental aspects of the redevelopment plan, Ventura City Atty. Boehm said. That period would expire Monday.

During the closed session, Ventura lawmakers also agreed to ask Oxnard for an agreement extending that statute of limitations, which would buy time for further discussion.

Oxnard refused because of "concerns about the legality of such an extension," Lopez said.

Correspondent Nick Green contributed to this story.

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