Pictured: An artist’s rendering of the proposed Haley Point Townhomes on Channel Drive in Ventura. From the project documents submitted by Warmington Residential.
by Kimberly Rivers
On May 5, the Ventura Planning Commission is set to review plans for 72 new townhomes to be built on a 4.3 acre site just east of Seaward Avenue on Channel Drive. Residents in the area have organized, set up a GoFundMe page, and are calling on the city to hear their concerns about the project while emphasizing that this is not a case of NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) but of concerns about safety and neighborhood compatibility.
The proposed Haley Point development includes 14 units, or 20%, which will be “below market rate” for moderate income households. Each unit will have a two-car garage, but no driveway. The entire project will include 13 parking spaces.
“When I found out about the project, I was surprised at how many of our neighbors were not notified,” said Jim Gibson, 48, a 16-year resident of Rancho Drive. He said when the city notified residents within the required 300 feet notification zone, he printed up flyers and walked the entire neighborhood to “raise the level of awareness.”
The group, Midtown Ventura Coalition, has grown, using Nextdoor and Facebook to share information. Gibson said the group has reached out to city officials and the developer to express concerns about traffic and how the city is handling the developers’ requested variances, combining requests for smaller setbacks and fewer parking spaces into one request.
“We fully expect it to be appealed. If the decision is not what the developer wants, or not what the neighbors want, they will appeal,” said Peter Gilli, community development director for Ventura.
Several residents spoke at the April 12 Ventura City Council meeting, saying the Emergency Streamlining Ordinance (EMSO), passed by the council in May 2020 to facilitate processing projects, is being misused to push this project through.
The EMSO made two changes, explained Gilli. One, a project will still have multiple hearings, with recommendations coming from those boards. But the last hearing body, determined by Gilli per the ordinance, will “make a final decision on the entire project.” That final decision can be appealed, which would put the project before the city council for a final, non-appealable finding. Appeals cost between $1,000 to $1,600 depending on the project. The action of the city council could only be challenged in court.
The EMSO added another requirement that “notification be sent out to property owners near the project early in the process.” He said normally notification is sent only when a hearing is about to happen, “very late” in the process.
“With Haley Point, in my opinion [those changes] are working,” said Gilli. “Residents organized because they’ve known about the project many extra months” in advance. “Because of the EMSO the Planning Commision actually has more leeway to change things. Now the Planning Commission can respond to design issues as well.” Previously only the Design Review Committee could make findings regarding the design of a project.
City staff is working to make the changes permanent. On Tuesday, April 28 the city council voted to extend the EMSO for a year. One council member, Mike Johnson (Dist. 3) voted in opposition of the extension. The Haley Point project is located in Dist. 2, represented by Councilmember Doug Halter.
Gilli also pointed to state laws which he said ties the city’s hands when it comes to modifying density or not approving housing developments.
“The General Plan designation for this site allows more housing than the developer has proposed. That is state law now. Five years ago it was different . . . [Now] if a project complies with the density range of the General Plan, then our ability to shrink or deny [the project]” has been eliminated. Prior to the recent changes it was common for the city to demand fewer units, even under allowable densities, and impose that on the development.
“The city can’t do that anymore; the state’s emphasis on the housing crisis has taken that away and limited the city’s ability to do things like that. Our residents have not wanted to hear that answer.”
The city’s General Plan document is akin to a land use constitution. All development, zoning and other land use projects, in order to gain approval, must be consistent with the city’s adopted General Plan document. Ventura is in the early phases of an update of the existing General Plan document. That paired with state law means the city is mandated to approve housing projects that do not conflict with the General Plan.
“Haley Point, for the most part, complies with state law, complies with city rules and the areas it doesn’t comply with city rules, state law gives the developer the ability to [get them approved]. State law puts the city into a corner. We have to grant what they are asking for.”
“I wish the state would let us have more authority to push back on some projects that could be made more compatible, more appropriate, but statewide for our entire lives, cities have not approved housing so much that the state got tired of it,” said Gilli. In response, the state is telling cities “if a developer wants to build 100 units, let them have 100 units if your zoning allows it. It ties our hands.”
The development receives a “density bonus” because 20% of the units are for moderate income households. This allows for two concessions: smaller front and rear setbacks. The increase in density “subsidizes” the more affordable units. The development also gets some leeway on parking standards.
Gibson said he has learned about California’s Senate Bill 330, the Housing Crisis Act of 2019, which is “pushing a lot of these high density developments and forcing cities and counties to build more urban infill.” He also said the legislation is allowing the city an open pathway to grant variances, “or concessions,” and that this project is a “prime example.”
SB330 went into effect Jan. 1, 2020 and sunsets in 2025. It requires shortening permit processing times for projects that meet local rules, limits the number of project hearings to five, and states that fees cannot be increased once a project is submitted. Urban areas cannot change design standards, or reduce the number of units allowed or otherwise cap population or ban new housing. Gilli also said the city cannot point to the drought to limit new housing.
Gibson concedes the current property used to store RVs and other vehicles isn’t attractive and that “I don’t think you’d have any opposition…for a medium density…build of nine to 20 units.” He added, “I think that the city is not being very transparent with the citizens of Ventura by saying that 72 units, 150 to 200 vehicles are not going to have significant impacts on traffic in midtown.”
Gibson says the city can “push back on state housing needs assessment,” but that in Ventura he views the recent changes in personnel as “pro-development.” He has met with an attorney who fought a high density project and was “able to successfully reduce the units per acre.” He said community pressure on the city and planning commission led to a request that the developer evaluate less units per acre. Gibson is hoping residents can achieve the same here.
Warmington Residential is the Costa Mesa-based developer for the Haley Point housing project.
All current development projects in process with the City of Ventura can be viewed online at www.cityofventura.ca.gov/226/Community-Development.
Information about the Midtown Ventura Coalition is online at midtownventuracoalition.com.