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Focus Shifts to El Rio Site for Juvenile Hall Complex

Corrections: County staff are expected to urge supervisors to build the center on strawberry field rather than Saticoy flower farm. Property would be easier to acquire.


In a shift motivated by a tight construction deadline, county officials are expected later this week to recommend that a new juvenile hall be built on a 45-acre strawberry field in El Rio.

Previously, a Saticoy flower farm near Ventura had been the favored site for the $65-million project. But with the Board of Supervisors scheduled to vote on a final site next week, officials say the preference behind the scenes is shifting to the parcel just north of Oxnard.

A key reason, according to officials, is a belief the county could avoid time-consuming condemnation proceedings with property in El Rio. That is a powerful incentive because the county is under pressure from the state to acquire land now and begin building.

County probation chief Cal Remington said he is convinced El Rio should rise to the top of the list of possible sites. Other members of the steering committee overseeing the construction project are leaning in that direction as well, Remington said. He believes county administrator Harry Hufford will recommend El Rio in a memo to be prepared by the end of the week. Two other steering committee members reached Tuesday declined comment.

Several factors are considered in selecting a site, such as proximity to major roads, drainage and layout of the property. After considering those variables, Saticoy emerged last summer as the top choice--and El Rio the second choice--among five potential sites that also included a parcel in Oxnard, one on Lewis Road south of Camarillo and another on land at the County Government Center.

Supervisors can choose to follow the staff members' recommendation or approve another site. All five properties were approved in an environmental analysis completed last year.

The site in El Rio, west of Vineyard Avenue between Lambert and Beedy streets in an industrial area, is owned by one partnership that is far along in negotiations with the county, said Sean Payne, the county's real estate administrator and project director for the juvenile facility.

Negotiations are not faring as well in Saticoy, Payne said. The land the county is considering there is held by two separate owners and a third party has offered to buy a portion of one of those lots.

Officials believe the county could reach an agreement quickly through a standard sale with the owner of the El Rio site, Payne said. But the county would more likely have to turn to condemnation for the Saticoy properties, he said.

Condemnation is a common procedure used by government to acquire private property from an owner who does not want to sell. It can help government get the lowest price possible, though that strategy sometimes backfires if a case goes to trial.

Acquiring land through condemnation can take only a matter of weeks, but wrangling over the selling price can drag on through the courts for more than a year.

The county needs to move fast, Supervisor John K. Flynn said. The new juvenile detention complex must be up and running by May 2003 or the county risks losing $40 million in state and federal funds, most of the project's backing.

"That's the last thing any public official wants," Flynn said.

Supervisor Judy Mikels, who serves on the project steering committee, agreed. "We've got to be done by a certain date, so condemnation really creates a problem for us."

Some in the community of El Rio have protested the possibility of a large juvenile detention facility being built in their neighborhood. School officials contend that the inmates housed there would be a bad influence on youngsters in the neighborhood.

Yolanda Benitez, El Rio Elementary School District superintendent, said she and others plan to argue against the site in El Rio at the board meeting next week.

"I don't think it's going to be good for the community," Benitez said. "We all agree we need a new juvenile justice center. But not there."

The facility is being built to replace an overcrowded 35-year-old center in Ventura. The new complex would house 540 juveniles and six juvenile courtrooms.

Remington said community members' fears are understandable but unfounded.

"We're going to build a quality complex that isn't going to create any blight, delinquency or crime at all," he said. "These facilities do not breed increased crime and delinquency."


Staff writer Anna Gorman contributed to this report.

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