An oil well operated by AERA Energy in the Ventura Oil Field along Ventura Avenue with nearby homes. Photo by Kimberly Rivers

by Kimberly Rivers

On Oct. 14, two groups, Ventura County Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business (VCCOLAB) and the Ventura County Agricultural Association (VCAA), filed legal action in Ventura County Superior Court against the county of Ventura regarding the recent adoption of the 2040 General Plan (GenPlan) and the related Environmental Impact Report (EIR). 

The parties are seeking a “writ of mandate” to set aside the GenPlan document and point to several reasons in support of this request in a 52-page filing. The GenPlan document governs land use decisions including zoning, oil and gas drilling, and lays out programs and steps to reduce emissions in the unincorporated county areas to draw down the area’s impact on climate change. 

The first page of the filing documents charges that the county approved the GenPlan and EIR “with maximum speed and minimum care” and goes on to allege that “a local official with larger political ambitions, intent upon creating a legacy and adopting these documents prior to his departure from local office,” led to a process that was rushed and failed to include accurate analysis and proper public outreach. The parties further charge that those failings resulted in a process that violates the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

VCCOLAB and VCAA were referring to outgoing Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett (Dist.1) who is termed out of office at the end of December and is running for state assembly. VCCOLAB strongly opposed the county’s SOAR initiative for which Bennett was a main organizer. 

The GenPlan update process began over four years ago and from the beginning was slated to be completed in 2020. Several public input meetings were held across Ventura County and public hearings were held with input periods. The document went into effect on Oct. 15. Unless the parties file for and the court approves a stay, the provisions of the GenPlan will be applied to all projects even as this legal action makes its way through the court.

In the final hearings to adopt the GenPlan, VCCOLAB members called on the county to delay the approval to allow for further analysis and public review. Due to a procedural issue, the final vote was delayed two weeks. The supervisors, in a majority split 3-2 vote, approved the GenPlan on schedule. Bennett was joined by Supervisors Linda Parks (Dist. 2) and John Zaragoza (Dist. 5) in adopting the GenPlan, with Kelly Long (Dist. 3) and Bob Huber (Dist. 4) voting no. 

The court filing states: “A General Plan is the most important land use blueprint that a local government creates. It establishes the foundation for the regulations under which a community shall live and work for decades into the future — the California Supreme Court has recognized it as the ‘constitution’ for future development.”

The county held numerous public outreach meetings and hearings over the four-year process of developing the GenPlan document, but VCCOLAB and VCAA point out that the law requires disadvantaged communities be given ample opportunity to review and comment on all aspects of the GenPlan and EIR. The organizations go on to list several particular provisions in two sections of the document: Agriculture and Open Space, and policies in those sections that mandate the use of electrified equipment as part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The filing claims that by restricting the use of natural gas-powered equipment, “the County has unlawfully encroached into state and federal law by banning future development and use of natural gas infrastructure.” The parties go on to allege that the public did have ample opportunity to review and thus participate, as CEQA requires, in the creation of the new GenPlan. 

The case has been assigned to Hon. Kevin G. DeNoce, in Department 43 of Ventura County Superior Court. 

Oil and land interests sue county

The recent filing by VCCOLAB and VCAA isn’t the only legal action faced by the county due to the General Plan.

Five entities representing the oil sector and local land interests filed separate actions on Oct. 15 in Ventura County Superior Court against Ventura County and two actions name the Board of Supervisors. The filings also seek a writ of mandate relating to the county’s approval of the 2040 GenPlan, which places new restrictions on the oil industry such as required setbacks from homes and prohibitions on flaring of natural gas. 

Three of the entities suing Ventura County, California Resources Corporation (CRC), Western States Petroleum Association and Lloyd Properties are represented by Los Angeles-based law firm Alston and Bird. The other two parties that filed against the county have other counsel; AERA Energy is represented by attorney David T. Moran with the firm of Manatt, Phelps and Phillips and Carbon California Company LLC is represented by Neal P. Maguire with Ferguson, Case, Orr, Patterson.

CRC recently filed for bankruptcy. 

Lloyd Properties owned over 2,000 acres of land in the Ventura Hillsides and donated about 800 acres of it to the Rancho Ventura Conservation Trust in 2016. 

COLAB and VCAA are both 501c6 membership organizations representing local agricultural interests.

Here is the petition filed by COLAB and VCAA: 2020-10-14 Verified Petition for Writ of Mandate.