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2 projects proposed near area wetlands

Developers want to build nearly 1,300 homes and a business park on farmland near Ormond Beach. A hearing is set for tonight.

June 21, 2007|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Two separate developers want to build nearly 1,300 homes and an adjoining business park on farmland in an unincorporated Ventura County area southeast of Oxnard.

But environmentalists are concerned that the proposed project would not only eliminate agricultural land but also threaten nearly two decades of restoration efforts at the neighboring Ormond Beach wetlands, which provide habitat for a variety of birds, including threatened and endangered species.

"You can't just build right up to the edge of a wetlands and expect it to thrive," said Al Sanders, conservation chairman of the Sierra Club's Los Padres chapter, which covers Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

Tonight, the Oxnard Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the environmental documents for the projects, which together would transform nearly 700 acres on both sides of Hueneme Road, east of Edison Drive and west of Olds Road.

The property would have to be annexed by the city before development could proceed, but the projects would not require a public vote under Oxnard and Ventura County growth-control laws.

Hearthside Homes, an Irvine-based firm developing the uplands portion of the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Orange County, is seeking to build 1,283 homes and condominiums on 322 acres of strawberry fields north of Hueneme Road. The project also would include schools, a 28-acre community park and a man-made lake.

Ed Mountford, senior vice president for the company, said the development would include roughly half the 2,500 homes permitted under Oxnard's General Plan for that area.

The project would help modernize south Oxnard's aging housing stock, in addition to addressing a countywide housing shortage, he said.

This "economic shot in the arm" is projected to generate $25 million in annual spending within the city once completed. The developers also would spend an estimated $9 million to expand Hueneme Road -- a main route to and from the Port of Hueneme -- from two to four lanes.

A separate project south of Hueneme Road is proposed by Marathon Land, parent company of Southland Sod Farms. It calls for creating a business park and light industry on 375 acres.

Southland Sod currently grows turf on nearly 600 acres. It proposes setting aside 220 acres to be sold later to the California Coastal Conservancy for expansion of the wetlands.

The conservancy, along with the nonprofit Nature Conservancy, has purchased 541 acres of wetlands and hopes to restore the area as a haven for several endangered species, including the western snowy plover and the California least tern.

Jurgen Gramckow, president of Marathon Land, said his agricultural company has taken opponents' concerns into consideration in designing the project in such a way as to preserve more wetlands. It's shortsighted to think private landowners would agree to give away all development rights along county coastland, he said.

Opponents "should step back and realize this is a way to achieve the wetlands expansion," Gramckow said. "If they want 220 acres for wetlands, we need the ability to make a profit on our other acreage. If not, we're stymied, they're stymied and we just keep farming."

But Sanders said the ecosystem's food chain has been disrupted and that further development could destroy a transition area in the uplands, where insects that pollinate plants in the wetlands live and breed.

In addition, Sanders said, top command at Naval Base Ventura County has warned against residential communities being too close, fearing complaints about aircraft noise and proximity to munitions.

Peter Brand, a Coastal Conservancy senior project manager, said the agency appreciates developers setting aside land for conservation. But the state intends to carefully review the voluminous draft environmental impact report to be discussed before the Planning Commission, he said.

"Some of the issues that will come up are the need for open space as buffers, whether those buffers are habitat or farmland," he said. "Secondarily, we'll examine the proximity of human uses near the wetlands and then encroachment of development past the current line."

The Planning Commission will take testimony on the report during its regular meeting at 7 p.m. in the City Council chambers, 305 W. 3rd Street in Oxnard.

The draft environmental report, also the subject of a July 19 hearing, is available on Oxnard's website, at city libraries and on the second floor of City Hall, where CD copies of the document are available to the public at no charge.


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