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Incentive Plan Aims to Revive Blighted Lots

Redevelopment: Oxnard City Council is expected to OK program. Slow-growth backers applaud the idea.


OXNARD — City officials are poised to begin offering incentives to those who build new homes or offices on vacant lots in blighted neighborhoods, rather than in the city's outlying or agricultural areas.

Most cities in Ventura County will consider offering loans, grants or other help to investors who want to build in designated redevelopment areas.

But industry experts say Oxnard would be the first in the county to guarantee breaks for everyone who builds on the so-called infill lots. The lots must be located in any of six targeted neighborhoods--La Colonia, Wilson, Hobson Park East, Five Points Northeast, Cypress or Southwinds--and be no larger than three acres each.

Council members are expected to give the incentive plan their final approval at a public meeting tonight.

Officials say the plan embraces the goals of the anti-sprawl policy known as SOAR, which was passed two years ago by voters. They also hope that targeted infill development will provide needed low-income housing and reduce crime and code-enforcement costs in those areas while increasing property tax collections.

"We've always worked with anybody who wanted to do an infill project" on a case-by-case basis, said Councilman Dean Maulhardt. "But this is a more proactive plan."

Slow-growth leaders said officials in the county's largest city should be congratulated for the plan. "Oxnard has always been the poster child for the kind of sprawl that SOAR was meant to address," said Richard Francis, a lawyer and a key force behind SOAR, or Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources. "This approach is a refreshing new direction."

Individuals who build homes or offices on these lots and also live or work in them would get a waiver for fees on water, traffic and other services that come with construction.

Developers who want to build homes or offices for sale or rental property would not get a waiver but could defer payment of their fees until just before the occupants move in. Typically, such fees are due up front and can make financing a project more difficult.

If approved, the plan would take effect a month from now and run until the city issues $500,000 in waivers. At that point, council members would decide whether to extend the program.

It's unclear just how many lots could be developed under the plan. Residential development fees average $9,000 per home or apartment unit, said Ernie Whitaker, who manages the city's affordable-housing section.

Commercial fees are determined by square footage--a 40,000-square-foot commercial building draws fees of about $128,000 that would be subject to exemption, Whitaker said.

Oxnard officials say they do not know just how many infill lots exist in the targeted neighborhoods, and city staff members would begin compiling that information once the plan is approved. The creation of such a list should encourage builders to take part in the program, said Dee Zinke, executive officer of the local Building Industry Assn. chapter. She is encouraging the city to assign one or two planners to work exclusively with infill investors.

Susan J. Daluddung, community development director in Ventura, said Oxnard's plan sounds like a good idea, and she hopes to craft a detailed infill strategy for Ventura over the next two years. "It's something we should definitely have," she said.

But infill is not a priority in some cities. Throughout Thousand Oaks, the real estate market is so strong that residential and commercial lots usually are grabbed up long before they have the chance to become eyesores, said economic development director Gary Wartik. "The very thing you're talking about in other cities is something Thousand Oaks is trying very hard to avoid," he said.

In Santa Paula, officials say the need to boost the city's tax base is so great that leaders must focus on building out--as Oxnard has for so many years--before trying to fill individual gaps on rundown city blocks. "Infill is always important," said planning director Tom Bartlett. "But you have to put your problems in order of urgency."

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