Hillside development planned in Ventura
A proposal for Mariano Rancho could bring 55 new homes to city
By Chris ONeal 07/24/2014
A conceptual plan to build 55 homes on the hills within Ventura city limits within the Mariano Rancho property could be a boon to conservationists and for those who desire more executive-level housing in the city, according to plans released by Regent Properties of Los Angeles.
The concept makes use of a 215.3-acre plot of the Mariano Rancho above Ventura High School, which was part of the failed Open 80 concept more than a decade ago. Like Open 80, which stands for the percentage of land that would have been set aside for conservation, the Regent Properties development would see a vast majority of a small parcel of the Mariano Rancho land given to the Ventura Hillsides Conservancy while the rest, which falls into an area zoned for residential development, would be built upon.
Approximately 175 acres of land could be given to the Ventura Hillsides Conservancy if the proposal moves out of the idea stage while 30 to 40 acres would be used for development. The Mariano Rancho property consists of 1,645 acres total, but only the 215 acres within city limits are a part of this plan.
“Part of the plan is preservation of most of the property and open space,” said Daniel Gryczman, executive vice president of Regent Properties. “Our goal is not to move the development line higher up than any of the developments on either side of it.”
Regent Properties has been in the real estate business for 25 years, founded by Alan Kohl of Kohl’s department stores and has developed fairly high-end properties throughout much of the Southwest. When Gryczman and associates were introduced to representatives from the Mariano Rancho property and given a tour; he says, they “fell in love” with the land. This isn’t the first time, however, that there has been a vision for the Mariano Rancho property.
In November of 2002, voters turned down a proposal that would allowed the developement of roughly 1,400 new homes on 730 acres on the hillsides of Ventura’s midtown district and use 3,000 acres as a private Home Owners Association controlled open space preserve. The plan included land outside city limits, which brought it under the Hillside Voter Participation Area. Both proponents of SOAR (Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources) and the Ventura Citizens for Hillside Preservation opposed the plan.
The Open 80 plan proposed two communities, named Midtown Heights and Hall Canyon, for the Mariano Rancho property. Midtown Heights would have had 180 single-family homes while Hall Canyon, which would have been accessed via bridges, would have allowed 150.
Unlike Open 80, the Regent Properties idea would develop land only within the Ventura city limits, and would permit the building of 55 homes. Because of its location, if the idea comes to fruition, the plan would not be subject to a public vote under the Hillside Voter Participation Area because it is within city limits.
The plan would also see two water towers moved and placed underground, a job that Gryczman said would be paid for by Regent Properties in order to remove the “eye sore.”
Jeffrey Lambert, community development director for the City of Ventura, said that while the goal of the “Hillside Management Program is to make sure that any development done on the hillside” is done with “as little disturbance to the topography as possible,” the city recognizes the need for executive-level housing to attract new business.
“Our economic development strategy talks about the need for a wide variety of housing, including executive housing,” said Lambert. “It’s pretty much agreed upon that if we can add some executive housing, it gives us the potential to be an attractive place for company relocation and growth.”
Diane Underhill, president of the Ventura Citizens for Hillside Preservation, responded to questions regarding the concept via email, indicating that while the plan would not be subjected to a Participation Area vote, it does fall under the city’s Hillside Management Plan (HMP).
“This ordinance is enforced by city staff to ensure that any hillside development is safe,” said Underhill in an email. “Given the extreme slope of much of the 215 acres, the 55-home proposal seems to be pushing the top limit of what would be allowed under the city’s HMP.”
Gryczman says that some of the land will need to be graded and that some, not all, surpasses the 30 percent maximum grade set by the Hillside Management Plan, but on average the area stands around 30 percent slope.
Underhill goes on to say that due to its preliminary standing, Ventura Citizens for Hillside Preservation does not have “the information to take a definitive position” on the concept currently.
Ventura Hillsides Conservancy President Tim Coonan says that as the plan is now, conceptually, the conservancy is “very much in favor” of the idea, but will wait for an environmental review and final details before taking a position.
“We’re very excited about the possibility of gaining a foothold in the Ventura hillsides in some way,” said Coonan. “It could lead to a larger effort to preserve a bigger swath of the hillsides.”
Currently the Conservancy owns land in the Ventura river area and has no significant hillside property. Coonan says that while the exact number of acres the Conservancy would receive in a completed plan is still up in the air, it could result in progress toward reaching the Conservancy’s goals.
“This will really start to fulfill one of the main purposes for which we were established, which was to conserve the areas above the city of Ventura.”
Coonan called the idea a “pretty fair trade in conservation and development” and notes that the idea to build trails into the hills is “very attractive to us,” saying that the owners and developers have tried to come up with a good balance of conservation and development.
“Usually these efforts begin with a small step, a toe hold, and this could be it,” said Coonan.
Conservancy Board Member Richard Francis, who co-authored the SOAR initiative, speaking for himself and not the Conservancy, says that for such a development to proceed there would need to be an “extraordinary benefit” to the city, which could include more land donated to the Conservancy than the 175 or so proposed acres or 100 percent affordable housing built in conjunction, somewhere in the city.
As part of any new project in the city, developers must provide inclusionary housing, or affordable housing, as part of the project. The housing must be on the same property as the proposed plan if it includes over 15 homes, but several lawsuits pending in the California Supreme Court could overturn these requirements.
Jeff Lambert says that the city is taking a wait-and-see approach to the situation, but hopes to amend the ordinance, if it remains in place after the decisions come down.
“Most people believe that we should have an in-lieu fee option to buy out of the requirement,” says Lambert. “The idea to set aside 15 percent of an executive lot for affordable housing doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Gryczman says that he hopes Regent Properties can pay an in-lieu fee to have affordable housing constructed elsewhere in the city.
Ventura Mayor Cheryl Heitmann says that the City Council will carefully consider the plan when it is submitted and that the council put together a committee last year to talk on the future of inclusionary housing, but recommendations were put on hold due to the Supreme Court hearings. Heitmann says that the council will be very careful when considering the plan.
“I do feel that the council is very open-minded and we try to listen to any proposal and weigh them on their merits,” says Heitmann. “I think it will be a very through vetting process.”
If all goes according to plan, Gryczman says, Regent Properties could submit the proposal to the city by this fall. If approved, groundbreaking could happen within two years. Regent Properties has been through 14 drafts of the plan before reaching the finalized version and is very much open to comments from the community.
“We’re really looking forward to having those conversations and our doors are open,” says Gryczman.
Disclosure: David Comden, publisher of the VCReporter, serves as the vice president of the Ventura Hillsides Conservancy.