Ventura City Council approved, 4-1, with Councilman Jim Monahan opposed, the pre-screen application for the Los Angeles-based developer Regent Properties proposed hillside project of 55 luxury homes in midtown Ventura above Ventura High School. Councilmembers Christy Weir and Mike Tracy recused themselves because they own property near the undeveloped 215-acre Mariano Rancho project site. The homes would be built on 40 acres.
"Measured against specific criteria, the Council is allowing the applicant to undertake a process to amend the general plan, and it begins the process to analyze a specific project that will be reviewed under the California Environmental Quality Act," said Councilman Carl Morehouse, who voted in favor of allowing the pre-screen application to move forward and has been in professional land-use planning for 40 years.
"There is no approval of what the proposal was but they can begin the process to do the analysis of what they are proposing. We haven’t amended the general plan. We are just allowing the process to look at that."
The vote came minutes before 1 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 1, after nearly eight hours of public commentary, with both sides for and against represented. The City Council then voted unanimously in favor of a list of recommendations to shape the project, also known as La Viera. The recommendations include:
- a) Land-use designation change from "neighborhood low" to specific plan;
- b) Provide full street connection at Lincoln Drive;
- c) The timing of infrastructure analysis to be concurrent with project evaluation and the CEQA review;
- d) Allowing development within slope areas in excess of a 30 percent slope gradient and/oralternative design standards, as long as the intent of the Hillside Management Plan is achieved and results in better overall design, with the following points:
1) General Plan and Hillside Management Plan goals and policies should be generally adhered to;
- 2) Planning Commission has concerns with the compatibility of the proposed land planning and amount of grading within the context of the adjacent neighborhoods;
- 3) Avoid creating tall and steep slopes;
- 4) 3:1 slopes are more ideal for landscaping and should be shaped and rounded to provide natural-appearing contours; and
- 5) Encourage low terracing slopes and retaining walls to follow contours rather than large padswhen creating buildings and yards.
- e) Streets may exceed a 15 percent slope gradient and/or alternative design standards in short stretches; and
- f) An alternative approach to provide on-site affordable housing as required under the Interim lnclusionary Housing Program should be studied in a formal application.
The Council’s vote comes a month after the Planning Commission voted 5-1 to recommend that the developer be allowed to move forward with the pre-screen application. The commission’s vote, however, did come with some controversy as hillside neighbor Nick Bonge filed a complaint Thanksgiving week with the Fair Political Practices Commission regarding a conflict of interest for Commissioner Jane Farkas. Farkas, who voted in favor of moving the pre-screen application forward, works for Sespe Consulting. The firm had worked with Regent Properties in Riverside in July 2014. While Farkas did file a Form 700 regarding a conflict of interest, she did not disclose that she worked for Sespe or how much money she made.
Jay Alan Wierenga, communications director for the Fair Political Practices Commission, said that the commission could decide by as early as the end of this week if it will do an investigation of the complaint.
He said that if the commission moves forward with any complaint, it does not have the power to force another vote on the same issue. That is up to the locality to determine. Any investigation could result in a simple advisory letter or a fine of up to $5,000, which is usually reserved for egregious repeat offenders. He said that if the person addressed in any complaint is cooperative, any particular issue, per se, could be addressed by properly filling out forms that were not prepared in the first place.
Robert Kwong of A to Z Law in Oxnard, represents Bonge. He said the purpose of the complaint was to ensure integrity in government, but also that the Planning Commission should reevaluate the hillside project without participation from Farkas.
Ventura City Attorney Gregory Diaz, however, addressed the issue during Monday night’s Council meeting. He referred to three facets of the common law and the Political Reform Act that Farkas is accused of violating. The first issue is that she did not include on the Form 700 the name of her employer, Sespe Consulting. She has since amended the form and added the name. The second is listing her income, and the third is being able to participate in decisions that involve entities from which she has personally made money. The law says that if it’s been more than 12 months since the individual has worked with an entity, income disclosure does not apply. Further, regarding voting, Farkas is a salaried employee who does not personally profit from deals that Sespe handles, and she also didn’t do any work in her position at Sespe for Regent Properties. Additionally, Farkas was appointed to the Planning Commission 12 months after Sespe last worked with Regent Properties.
"My determination is that there was no conflict of interest," Diaz said, based on his interpretation of the pertinent laws of disclosure.
For the next step, Regent Properties will submit a formal application to the city by the beginning of the new year and will begin environmental impact report and specific plan process.