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The Region

Ranchers Vow to Fight City Sewer Project

The growers contend that a Santa Paula plan to build the treatment plant on agricultural land would violate preservation laws.

March 05, 2004|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

Half a dozen ranchers are threatening to sue the city of Santa Paula if it moves forward with plans to build a new sewage treatment plant on their land.

The ranchers contended in a letter to city officials this week that their property was prime agricultural land and the city would be violating farmland preservation laws by trying to build on it.

Moreover, they said, the city would be contributing to "leapfrog" development because the property is outside city boundaries.

"My clients will fight tooth and nail any attempt to use their property for a wastewater treatment facility," said Anthony Trembley, an attorney representing the ranchers. "It will be a very long and very costly fight. We suggest the city of Santa Paula stop procrastinating and start looking at the existing property to build their new plant."

Although Santa Paula officials said they never told the landowners they would seek to acquire the acreage through eminent domain, the city can legally exercise that option at any time.

The issue arose last month when the property owners received letters from a land acquisition agent acting on behalf of the cities of Fillmore and Santa Paula, informing them their properties were being surveyed as a possible site for a joint treatment plant.

Since the letters were sent out, a committee of representatives from both cities has determined a joint project would not work for economic and environmental reasons. Still, the city of Santa Paula is studying the agricultural property, located several miles southwest of city limits in unincorporated Ventura County, as a possible location for the plant, said Santa Paula City Councilwoman Mary Anne Krause.

Krause, a member of the special committee, said the agricultural property remained the preferred site because it would put the plant far away from residents, who might otherwise smell the sewage. She rejected the ranchers' suggestion that the city simply build the new plant at the old site.

"There's a potential for odors immediately adjacent" to the old plant, Krause said. "If we're going to ask our residents to live in such a high density, I don't think people should have to live with the smell. We already have the highest density of any city in the county. I think they should be able to live with more dignity and spend time out of doors. I've heard from people who've been embarrassed when they've had guests and the wind would bring the smell into the neighborhood."

Krause said another reason the new plant could not be built on the old site was because there was not enough room. The old plant would have to continue treating the city's sewage while the new one was under construction, she said, and the current site cannot contain both.

Santa Paula and Ventura County would have to determine whether using a portion of the farmland for a wastewater treatment plant complied with open space preservation laws, Krause said.

The city is under pressure from state regulators to replace the 1930s-era plant in central Santa Paula because it does not meet clean water standards. The updated plant must be in operation by December 2007 or the city would face costly fines.

The joint plant had been estimated to cost about $60 million, but the price tag for a stand-alone plant has not been determined, Krause said.

A second location under consideration is next to the current plant, but Krause said the location was less attractive because it did not resolve the smell issue.

She pointed out that, since the ranchers were notified that their properties were under review, the preferred site had been narrowed to a location owned by a single property owner. She said most of the other properties were on a flood plain that was unsuitable for a sewage treatment plant.

But Trembley said none of the land should be used for anything other than growing citrus and row crops. Collectively, the ranchers own 330 acres in the area.

"It's fundamentally incompatible with our existing greenbelt agreement," he said. "Cities have been preaching the gospel of farmland preservation and saving open space for years now. If they go through with this, it will show that the city doesn't value prime agricultural land, and they're just paying lip service to wanting to preserve farmland."

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