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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Farmland Ruled Out for School

Oxnard Elementary District Bows to Legal Questions Over Site Choice

April 20, 2001|JENIFER RAGLAND and DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

OXNARD — Amid a grand jury investigation and other legal problems, Oxnard school officials announced Thursday that they have shelved plans to build a new elementary school on prime farmland east of the city.

The Oxnard Elementary School District's decision also comes after it missed a March 31 deadline to enter escrow on the 14-acre sod field on Emerson Avenue, and lost millions of dollars in state funding.

The missed deadline, a lawsuit filed by a local planning agency and an inquiry by the Ventura County Grand Jury all made it more difficult for the district to choose the Emerson Avenue site for its new $13-million Juan Soria School.

"We have got to get on with the business of this district," Supt. Richard Duarte said. "The point is, the board had to decide--do we keep negotiating with the seller, knowing that the opposition is going to fall to such tactics and further delay this project."

Trustees voted in closed session Wednesday night to focus on building the district's 20th elementary school at Victoria Avenue and Wooley Road and an intermediate school next to Oxnard High School. The schools are needed to ease overcrowding in a district that gains 400 new students a year.

However, the Emerson Avenue site is still a potential location for a new school.

"The site remains one of the best around for a school and remains on the top of our list for eventual acquisition," school board President Dorothie Sterling said.

The district's decision not to buy the site now defuses a three-year battle with environmental and community groups that opposed the location because the farmland is protected by a 1998 antisprawl initiative limiting Oxnard's growth.

"We all need to work together to make sure they get the sites they need to build another school," said county Supervisor John Flynn, a longtime opponent. "We've identified several sites for them already."

The school district's decision was prompted, Duarte said, partly by its inability to reach a deal last month with the site's owners.

Oxnard developer Dave White, who owns part of the parcel, said the price of the land escalated after a ruling by the Local Agency Formation Commission required the district to buy all 40 acres of the Emerson Avenue parcel in order to build a school on 14 acres.

40-Acre Mandate Increased Price

Although White declined to disclose the precise offers in the deal, he said that the 14 acres would have cost more than $100,000 an acre and that the remaining 26 acres would have sold for their farming value of about $50,000 an acre. That would have increased the price of the site to about $2.7 million, rather than about $1.4 million.

"LAFCO determined that the school district couldn't go ahead, and that just made it too difficult," White said.

Also tainting the deal was the grand jury investigation initiated last month after complaints that the school district was focusing on the Emerson Avenue site and ignoring other parcels within city boundaries.

Duarte confirmed that he and Assistant Supt. Sandra Rosales met with grand jury representatives three weeks ago. But he said the inquiry was not a factor in backing away from the Emerson Avenue site.

He called the inquiry "just another pressure tactic" by opponents and said investigators won't find evidence of misdeeds.

"There's nothing there," he said. "But it gives you an indication of the level of influence we're talking about.

Duarte said he thinks Flynn, with whom he had a physical confrontation at a December City Council meeting, complained to the grand jury.

"They were responding to an influential person's inquiry," he said.

Flynn said he didn't start the investigation and knew nothing about it.

Grand jury representatives also met with LAFCO Executive Director Everett Millais on April 13. Millais said he provided documents, including staff reports, meeting minutes and a copy of his agency's lawsuit.

Grand jurors investigate not only criminal matters but the operations of local governments and school districts and make recommendations on how to fix problems.

Arguments over the Emerson Avenue site began shortly after it rose to the top of the district's favored locations for a new school about three years ago.

Environmentalists argued that building a school on the site would violate the spirit of Oxnard's Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources initiative, could endanger children by exposing them to pesticides and was near an old oil well that had exploded in recent years.

Opponents forced the district to complete two environmental studies of the site and criticized the district for refusing to fully analyze alternative sites at the same time.

Last year, LAFCO tried to block the building plans by refusing to allow the parcel to be annexed to Oxnard. The City Council, however, approved extending city water and sewer services to the land, which would have enabled construction.

District Had Spent $1 Million on Project

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