This story has been updated. 

It has been said that Ventura lacks lengthy hiking trails despite its natural assets. That may change if a proposed hillside development above Ventura High School moves forward.

Regents Properties and the Ventura Hillsides Conservancy announced Monday that they have entered into an exclusive agreement that would lead to the donation of nearly 722 hillside acres to the Conservancy — 547 acres in addition to the 175 already pledged by Regents for the development of 55 luxury homes on 40 acres of the property. The property would be used as public open space and trails, potentially connecting trails from Hall Canyon to Ventura’s Grant Park.

Conservation manager Derek Poultney for the Ventura Hillsides Conservancy said that in order for the Conservancy to negotiate with landowners over any proposed development on the hillsides, as written in the organization’s bylaws, the proposal in question must meet the minimum requirement of 80 percent open space to 20 percent development. With this recent agreement, the proposed development shifts that ratio significantly.

“It simply increases the overall community benefit; this raises the percentage to 95 percent open space and 5 percent development,” Poultney said. “This is just an agreement to continue talking with each other and there’s a lot of things that can happen.”

While few would argue against the preservation of open space, any further development on the hillsides stirs up controversy, from hillside property owners to concerned citizens. This proposal, which came before the city in July 2014, has been a hot topic — it’s so hot that concerned citizens have started a petition that currently has around 3,400 signatures, though the signatures with names and addresses have not been verified. Opponents’ issues vary, from just not wanting any more development on the hillside (though the property in question has been zoned for residential) to serious safety concerns. And Regents Properties takes those concerns seriously, according to a recent letter addressed to the mayor and City Council. Those issues include potential landslides and seismic activity, given that there is a fault line in the general midtown area that runs next to the high school.

Along with the announcement of the agreement to negotiate on Monday, Regents Properties’ land development president Daniel Gryczman filed with the city a peer-reviewed report by Daniel Pradel, Ph.D., of Regents’ consultants’ analysis of the hillside property and the potential for the aforementioned serious natural disasters. Pradel, a 25-year geotechnical engineer veteran who is currently a professor of engineering at UCLA, just returned home after working in Nepal studying the damage done after the earthquake in April. He also served as an expert witness for the families who suffered devastating losses after the landslide in La Conchita in 2005. In a phone conversation, Predal brought up some of the issues being raised by local residents, one being that the hillside in the proposal could be likened to La Conchita.

“This site is no La Conchita, period,” Pradel said. “La Conchita is a really steep slope, full of scars from previous failures. There is evidence of failures even before 1909 (when a train was buried from a landslide). When the slope has failed before, it will again.”

Pradel went on speaking of the serious problems with La Conchita, including the fact that portions of the orchard on the mesa drain toward the La Conchita landslide and there is a road in the middle of the slope, the Ranch Road, where water drains into the landslide.

“It is a very different situation,” he said. “The overall angle is not that steep. From geological and geotechnical point of view, it doesn’t make sense. There are no similarities. There has been no landslide in La Viera (the Regents’ property). There are canyons that capture the water, and the angles of the slopes are fairly mellow.”

Regarding the seismic activity,  the 1972 Alquist-Priolo Earthquake Fault Zoning Act requires that the development be set back generally around 50 feet from a fault. The fault in question, the Ventura fault, which runs practically parallel to Ventura High School, is approximately 1,000 feet from the closest proposed house on the property. Pradel said that with today’s building codes and standards, new developments aren’t prone to as much damage as older buildings, including the ones closest to the Ventura fault.

In conclusion, however, Pradel said that developing the property would benefit the Hobson Heights community, which has been the most vocal against the development, with the addition of debris basins, storm drains and wider streets that the nearby neighborhood doesn’t have, leaving them currently unprotected when storms come.

Gryczman with Regents said that, right now, he is just waiting for the city’s permission to move forward with the project — hoping it will be given by the end of the year — and that he expects the city to use its own engineers to conduct its own studies. Gryczman also said that should the project go through, Regents will work out in lieu fee for for sale affordable housing, as required by the city ordinance.

Click here for the PDF of the geotechnical engineering report.

David Comden, publisher of the VCReporter, is the president of the Ventura Hillsides Conservancy board.