LAFCo: Santa Paula keeps its canyons after land agency splits on vote

March 22, 2013
Santa Paula News

After an almost four-hour hearing things didn’t change at all when a deadlocked vote by the Ventura County Local Agency Formation (LAFCo) failed to move Santa Paula’s sphere of influence.

Santa Paula retained Adams and Fagan canyons - both targeted for future growth - after LAFCo, the agency that governs urban boundaries in Ventura County, deadlocked 3-3 to remove Adams Canyon from the sphere of influence.

LAFCo had offered three options to commissioners, removing both canyons, removing only Adams Canyon and leaving the boundaries intact. Commissioner Carl Morehouse, a Ventura City Councilman, recused himself from voting citing a conflict of interest because he is married to Janna Minsk, Santa Paula’s planning director.

There were numerous speakers for and against retaining one, both or neither canyon in the city’s sphere, each given five minutes to express their thoughts. 

Mayor Ralph Fernandez questioned why LAFCo would “interfere with the will of the voters,” who set land boundaries. If the canyons were removed from the sphere it would “take lots of money and lots of time” to repeat the process for development, sidelined by the economic crisis. Fernandez noted the economy is recovering and Santa Paula must be poised to take advantage of growth opportunities, especially “one overwhelming fact... the wastewater treatment plant was sized for growth,” and denying the future of same would “rob the citizens of the potential” of lower rates.

Fagan Canyon primary owner Bruce Dickenson took LAFCo to task on one agency stance that there are no studies on potential growth, noting the area was the subject of numerous reports. And with the economy on the rebound, Dickenson said there is raising interest from investors in development.

Mike Mobley, who also has Fagan property, agreed, noting the state had approved the city’s Housing Element that included future growth in the canyons. 

Developers and attorneys addressed various issues surrounding the process as well as the future of the canyons. Ron Rakunas, representing RE Loans, noted the company had foreclosed on the Pinnacle Group, which owned Adams Canyon and was already in financial trouble in 2008. Rakunas said investors who lost $38 million through the loan default and foreclosure must have assurances of recovery; if taken out of the sphere of influence developers would have no interest in acquiring Adams. 

Attorney Chris Garrett noted a conflict-of-interest with a top member of the LAFCo staff who lives in Wheeler Canyon, within 300 feet of the Adams Canyon property line, and said he could “understand” why some might not want the land developed.

Attorney Mike Piszker, representing the 32-acre Anderson Project located at the corner of Peck and Foothill roads, received assurances that the pending 79-home development would not be included in any LAFCo action. The property was the subject of a 2003 ballot initiative that passed muster with the voters, and “I want to point out the fact that although our project for some inexplicable reason was lumped in with Adams we’re not even near Adams Canyon."

Bob Borrego of Santa Paula asked that Adams be excluded from the sphere, noting questionable claims of the benefits of canyon development as well as water availability. 

John Wisda of Santa Paula noted a ballot measure that limits growth and requires voter approval is still valid.

Bob Braitman, the former Executive Director of LAFCo who later consulted with the city, noted growth had been encouraged in the canyon areas to protect agriculture.

Several other Santa Paula residents asked that Adams be excluded, and one questioned the accuracy of maps used by LAFCo.

Santa Paula Planning Director Janna Minsk addressed several issues and rebuffed LAFCo’s claim that the areas were not studied, noting Fagan Canyon had undergone extensive pre-development examination. Such effort, she noted, requires working “hand in glove with others,” such as the specific plan for the Limoneira development. With rising interest in development, Minsk said any changes would “shortchange” the community. Minsk and City Attorney John Cotti answered several questions posed by commissioners.

After some discussion, County Supervisor and Commissioner Linda Parks noted the “huge” land mass of the canyons, “more than 7,000 acres... this is LAFCo’s bite of the apple,” to make a decision on what she called “inconsistencies” between the city’s General Plan and the sphere of influence. Others were not so sure LAFCo would be done with the issue: LAFCo Chair Gail Pringle noted that if a project were created it would have to return to the panel for the annexation process.

Supervisor and Commissioner Kathy Long noted the spheres of influence were created before Limoneira East Area 1 was on the development table; when that project came before LAFCo a land swap of sorts was agreed upon related to Adams Canyon. “East Area 1 was able to plow through” the economic downturn, and Long said she would support the option retaining Fagan, which “has some legs to stand on,” but would support moving the less studied Adams from the sphere of influence. She also questioned the return on development in the remote Adams, noting present residents would likely be “shortchanged” and have to pay the bills for city staff time and later general services. 

But other commissioners said they felt it was best to leave the boundaries where they are, with one noting that by law the sphere of influence would have to undergo review again in five years.

After the split 3-3 vote to remove Adams from the sphere failed, Parks asked that the matter be continued and some reductions of Adams actual boundary be bought back to LAFCo.

“I don’t want to sit here and start drawing lines,” said Pringle.

“Neither would I,” noted Long. 

Following the hearing, Dickenson said LAFCo made “the logical decision... and we’ll just continue ahead seeking more investors.”

“We’re pleased that common sense prevailed,” said Minsk. 

Those supporting the motion to remove Adams Canyon from the sphere of influence were Commissioners Parks, Long and Linda Ford-McCaffrey. Voting to retain the city’s present sphere of influence were Commissioners Pringle, Janice Parvin and Bruce Dandy.

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