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Candidate's Suit Challenges City Over Land Deal

Development: Council hopeful says that in approving luxury homes on equestrian center site, Thousand Oaks violated its growth ordinance.


With the Nov. 5 election only weeks away, Thousand Oaks City Council candidate Michael Farris is preparing for a legal showdown with the city over his opposition to a controversial land deal that led to his ouster from the Planning Commission.

Farris argues in legal papers filed this week that the city abused its power by approving development of three luxury homes on a nine-acre site that had been set aside for a private equestrian center.

The brief was entered as part of a lawsuit filed in April in which Farris accused the city of violating its growth-control ordinance requiring voters' approval to change the land use of property designated for parks, golf courses and open space.

His lawsuit further contends that there was insufficient environmental analysis of building estate homes on the property and that allowing such construction would lead to more residential development at the site, near the Santa Monica Mountains.

The city, which contends Farris' suit is based on a misunderstanding on how the property is zoned, has until next week to respond to his complaint. The case is scheduled for trial Oct. 7.

Attorney Richard Francis, who is representing Farris, said the City Council cut the public out of the process when it granted the landowner, Operating Engineers Pension Trust, permission to abandon its plans last spring to build an equestrian center at Dos Vientos Ranch.

Instead, the developer will use a small portion of the nearly 2,300-acre site for upscale housing.

"My interest is not three houses and 8.7 acres," said Francis, an architect of the county's growth-control laws known as SOAR. "But SOAR is so vulnerable to city councils ignoring it, that wherever that happens, I feel it must be challenged."

In exchange for allowing homes on the site, the developer would give the city $2.5 million toward the cost of building a 20-to 30-acre public equestrian facility on government-owned land south of Dos Vientos.

In his brief submitted Monday to Ventura County Superior Court, Farris maintains a 1996 city map specified the site as a parks and open-space area shortly before a citywide SOAR initiative was approved to protect such land.

But the city says the property, known as Site I, was misclassified on early land-use maps.

City Atty. Mark Sellers said the map in question was improperly colored and that the council had years earlier approved a specific plan with Operating Engineers for equestrian uses, which are not allowed in an open-space zone.

"We're in a situation of spending a lot of money on something that is meritless," Sellers said. "The bottom line is the city staff cannot change the General Plan."

The lawsuit argues that once the SOAR growth-control ordinance was adopted by the council in 1996, it obligated the city to adhere to the land uses outlined in its General Plan and corresponding maps, whether correctly marked or not.

Mark C. Allen, a Pasadena lawyer representing Operating Engineers Pension Trust, said his client believes its right to develop its property should not be jeopardized over a possible mistake in land-use maps. "Our main objective is to get the thing resolved so we can move on," Allen said.

But Farris said city officials had ample opportunity to review the SOAR petition presented for council approval before it was circulated and signed by more than 11,000 residents. He said the council also had time to uncover any errors in the city's planning maps.

"What you can't do is, six years later, come back and say, 'Oops! That's a mistake,' " said Farris, who was ousted from his post as chairman of the Planning Commission in February after delaying a vote on the development deal.

Soon after, Farris entered the race for one of three seats on the City Council.

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