City and county officials, along with outside economists and members of the general public, gathered Sept. 12 for the sixth annual Ventura County Housing Conference. Subtitled “Boomer or Bust: Housing the Changing Face of Ventura County,” the eight-hour meeting at Oxnard’s Courtyard by Marriott, which ended after the #Reporter# went to press, focused on the lack of affordable housing in the county, the median price of a home hovers just under $600,000.

Attendees heard presentations from a number of experts regarding the county’s economic forecast for the upcoming fiscal year, Ventura’s long term housing needs and innovative tactics in opening up the dialogue on housing with local government.

Of particular interest to much of the audience, however, was the Creative Solutions Panel, a discussion of the controversial Jones Ranch Project, a proposal to annex 165 acres of unincorporated land north of El Rio to Oxnard for 2,500 units of affordable housing. The new community would exist just northeast of the similarly sized RiverPark development.

The panel featured Lynn Jacobs, director of the California Department of Housing and Community Development; Charles J. Dragicevich, senior vice president of land acquisition for CityView; Michael Goldberg, co-founder of communications group ActionMedia; and Oxnard Mayor Tom Holden, who has voiced his support for the Jones Ranch plan in the past.

Absent from the discussion, however, was Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn, who oversees the district in which the parcel is located. Flynn said he was not invited to participate in the panel and learned of the event only a week prior to the conference. He contacted the organizers but was told no changes would be made. Flynn said he does not particularly mind being left out, but felt a representative for the neighborhood likely to be impacted by the project should have been included.

“What I’ve learned through the years about projects is they are almost never successful if the local community is not involved,” Flynn said.

Brad Golden, co-chair of the conference, said there was “no political thought” behind the construction of the panel. “It’s not an endorsement of the project or a slamming of the project,” he said. “We’re just throwing out that there are people thinking outside the box.” Golden said the decision to exclude Flynn from the discussion was made to avoid any possible “conflict of interest.”

But some, including Flynn, believe having Supervisor Kathy Long act as moderator constitutes a “conflict of interest” in itself, because Long serves on the Ventura Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), the agency responsible for regulating annexations of land within the county. When asked about her opinion on Jones Ranch, Long said she is maintaining a position of neutrality.

“My role on the panel is to be neutral on the project,” she said.

But Trisha Munro, an El Rio resident, said the panel appeared designed to promote the project and that Long’s presence communicates approval to the public.

“Even if she’s neutral, just the appearance of her being on that [panel] doing that and being on LAFCO sends a message of, ‘Well, Kathy Long must be for it, and we trust her,’ ” Munro said. She added that because Long is aware of LAFCO’s concerns, she could “easily manipulate the questions [to the panel] to help answer [LAFCO’s] questions.”

Munro said she opposes the Jones Ranch Project because it goes against what the public wanted when they voted to approve the Save Open-Space and Agricultural Resources (SOAR) initiative. The project would take advantage of a loophole in the law, which usually requires a popular vote to approve any conversion of farmland beyond Oxnard’s borders. A provision allows the city to annex 20 acres a year if it is for the development of affordable housing.

Munro said the community would be “out in the middle of nowhere,” away from any retail or transportation centers. It would also increase traffic on Vineyard Avenue, which would add to the estimated 88,000 trips RiverPark will produce, she said.

And despite Golden’s protestations to the contrary, Munro said she believes Flynn was excluded from the panel discussion to prevent any opposing opinions.

“I think it’s a power play,” she said. “He has strong opinions, and they don’t happen to flow with the building industry necessarily. He was left out because of his fighting attitude toward El Rio.”

Flynn said while there is a need for low-income housing, there are traffic issues involved with the creation of 2,500 new residences that need to be addressed as well.

“I am inclined to work on a project with Tom Holden,” Flynn said, “but it’s got to include the local community.\”