A general plan envisioning what growth and development may look like in Oxnard over the next 20 years is a long way from being approved by officials, but according to those involved, preserving a sensitive wetlands embankment along Ormond Beach should be the city’s No. 1 priority.

As the City Council voted to forgo approving its 2030 General Plan last month over several unresolved issues, deciding instead to solicit input through a series of public meetings, the first of those informational sessions was dominated by a concern over Ormond, trumping examination of things like green energy, transportation corridors and detailed City Urban Restriction Boundary (CURB) lines.

“We look at Ormond Beach as Oxnard’s future,” states Mike Stubblefield, the president of the Sierra Club’s Ventura affiliate, the Los Padres chapter.

Stubblefield does not make his statement lightly. Since the delay on the 2030 plan, an environmental document OK’d by the council this month — certifying two development projects near the wetlands — has preservationists up in arms over what can best be described as a numbers game.

The council approved on March 2 a 4,000-page environmental impact report, or EIR, detailing all of the possible negative impacts that could result if both projects were built out, and how to mitigate them.

Dispute over the adequacy of the EIR comes from the Environmental Defense Center, California Coastal Conservancy, Sierra Club and others, who would like to see at least 1,000 acres of the precious marshland saved rather than built over. Stakeholders in the North and South Ormond Beach projects are willing to concede and sell added land for preservation, but it’s still not enough for wetland supporters. It’s pitted both camps against City Council members, whose obligation to please both sides places them in a unique situation.

Wetlands backers direct their dissatisfaction to the “Southern Subarea” of the two-pronged project, a 595-acre parcel slated for a 375-acre business/industrial park, with the remaining land for agricultural use.

The Coastal Conservancy already owns 540 acres of wetlands preserve at Ormond Beach. But that’s only about half of its intended goal, and the conservancy takes issue mainly with an Oxnard sod farmer who represents property owners of the subarea parcel, located south of Hueneme Road. The land in question is the Holy Grail, according to Stubblefield, of the overall wetlands vision.

Jurgen Gramckow of Southland Sod Farms, who did not return phone calls for this story, stipulated at the March 2 City Council meeting that he can only devote so much of his project area to wetlands preservation before his plans are no longer worth the cost.

“At some point,” Gramckow said, “it doesn’t make financial sense anymore.”

Gramckow’s plans call for 279 acres of open space, 220 that the farmer has set aside for the wetlands. That brings the Coastal Conservancy’s total allotment to 760 acres. At the March 2 meeting, Gramckow compared it to the size of four Disneylands.

But Peter Brand, of the Coastal Conservancy and Ormond Beach Task Force, says there’s no reason why the sod farm can’t develop further along the Oxnard plain, where the company has additional holdings. That, according to Brand, would be the critical step to keeping the wetlands development-free.

“We need to acquire all of the sod farm,” Brand said. “That will allow (them) to continue farming on another property nearby.”

Gramckow’s surprise offer at the meeting was his willingness to sell as much as an extra 120 acres of the planned industrial park, bringing the potential for preserved wetlands to 870 acres. “The price is going to have to reflect its development potential,” he said.

The actual price at this point is unknown, though Gramckow indicated that he’s not willing to go any further because he could stand to lose as much as $400 million if he were to forfeit his project in favor of wetlands restoration.

“We’re not trying to pre-empt the Coastal Conservancy, and frankly, this project makes this land available to (them),” he said.

According to Karen Kraus, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Center, a deal must be struck soon between the two parties. Nobody, she said, has appraised the land yet for its value, but when the City Council eventually approves the general plan, it would then be zoned for industrial use, which would carry a higher price tag for the Coastal Conservancy if it wishes to purchase the land for preservation.

Stubblefield, of the Sierra Club, offered one reason why they want all the acreage they can get.

“You can’t put development right up to wetlands,” he said. “Our line in the sand has been south of Hueneme Road.”

Brand pointed to the incidence of sea level rise along the coastline. The Coastal Commission had contracted earlier with the Pacific Institute in Oakland, which determined through a study that in 90 years, sea levels in Oxnard, in conjunction with flood risks, may rise up to a maximum two feet higher than currently. The result, according to Matt Heberger, an engineer with the institute, could be an erosion and a “shoreline hardening,” causing the wetlands to retreat up the coast.

“And if it encounters buildings, roads and parking lots, it’s not going to work,” Heberger said. “But if it’s preserved as open space or agricultural or parkland, there’s a high likelihood the wetlands can migrate upslope. That’s the key issue.”

Although the EIR was approved by city leaders, the 2030 plan (and its inclusion of the Ormond Beach wetlands) has been put on hold, and the City Council finds itself in a precarious balancing act.

Council member Dean Maulhardt offered hope for Oxnard obtaining $5 million in Proposition 84 grant money toward building a wetlands interpretive science center called Gateway Park.

“It’s a matter of location,” Maulhardt said this week. “All the property is in private hands. But the portion the Coastal Conservancy owns, I’d like to see as a usable park put in there to serve the eco-tourist industry.”

Officials estimate the park may cost as much as $30 million.

Chris Williamson, a senior planner with the city who, with Stubblefield, led the first 2030 plan outreach meeting last week at Café on A, indicated that as of March 10, his department has received comments about Ormond Beach from 37 different organizations, more than on any other issue contained in the draft plan’s pages.

Because of the sensitivity of the issue, the city rescheduled a workshop specific to Ormond to May 20, at the next meeting of the Ormond Beach Task Force.    

Workshops on land use, public facilities and schools will be held Friday, April 9, at Mora Law Offices, 300 C St., Oxnard; on the city’s housing element, Monday, April 19, at the Oxnard Public Library, 251 S. A St.; and on the proposed Jones Ranch CURB line extension, Tuesday, April 27, at the library. All meetings are 5-7 p.m.

For additional information on the workshops, call the city’s planning division at 385-7858, or visit ci.oxnard.ca.us for more on the 2030 plan.